- Created on Saturday, 30 June 2012 02:00
By the Afro-Middle East Centre
The sixteen month long Syrian uprising hit a critical juncture last Friday, 22 June, when Syria downed an unarmed Turkish F4 Phantom plane. An enraged Turkey maintained the plane was shot down in international airspace after it had only momentarily, and accidentally, strayed into Syrian territory while on a training sortie. Syria, which immediately admitted it had shot down the plane, countered that the plane had been gunned down over Syrian territory and that its forces had acted to protect its sovereignty. Although the incident has potentially changed the rules of engagement between Turkey and Syria, it is by no means a game changer for either.
Turkey’s bellicose tone in response to the ‘hostile act’ was belied by its measured response. Unsurprisingly, it opted against a unilateral military response. Like its fellow NATO members, Turkey does not want to be dragged into a war with Syria. Rather, in a move that would not compromise its regional ambitions but would send a clear message to Syria that any perceived act of aggression would not be tolerated, Turkey called for a meeting under Article 4 of NATO’s Charter which asks NATO members to consult whenever the ‘territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened’. Significantly, Turkey did not convene the meeting under the more serious Article 5 that states that any armed attack against one NATO member is an attack against all its members and that each member would take ‘such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area’.
Turkey’s invocation of Article 4 and NATO’s firm but tempered statement that it ‘consider[s] this act to be unacceptable and condemn[s] it in the strongest terms’ suggest that both Turkey and NATO recognise that, as opposed to a deliberate act of aggression, Syria’s action was indicative of a jittery regime on high alert. This was especially so since this incident took place a day after a Syrian pilot defected to Jordan, a significant blow and embarrassment for the Syrian regime when one considers that the air force has traditionally been seen as the closest military branch to the Asad family.
Despite President Bashar al-Asad’s statement this week that Syria was ‘in a state of war’, the regime remains entrenched. Asad is cognisant that it would be suicidal to open up a front with Turkey or to provide an excuse for military intervention by NATO, something Syria’s staunch allies Iran and Russia would not want to countenance. Russia called for calm and urged Turkey to act with restraint, contending that the incident should not be seen as an act of ‘provocation’.
Taking no immediate action, Turkey instead deployed troops, heavy military machinery and anti-aircraft batteries to its border with Syria. Turkey made it clear any incursions across the border, by Syrian armed forces or rebels, would be seen as a ‘military threat’ and treated as a legitimate ‘military target’. Turkey has staked its allegiance with the Syrian uprising, playing host to a number of opposition groups. Turkey’s new border policy could potentially weaken Asad as it could result in the border becoming more porous for smugglers assisting opposition forces without the threat of being pursued by Syrian forces.
Ironically Turkey and Syria have both emerged from this incident strengthened. Syria’s successful downing of a fighter plane has displayed that its air defences are prepared to deal with an attack or the imposition of a no-fly zone. Turkey stands to gain long-term benefits from the uprisings that have spread across the region. As a member of NATO, and with Turkey’s ruling AK Party being aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey straddles two worlds. Its response to this incident, that has neither questioned its military might nor its regional role, indicates a country aware that a calculated approach will best serve its long-term foreign policy agenda of establishing itself as regional power.