Turkey jet crisis unlikely to pull NATO into Syria

Associated Press
In this photo released by the Turkish Presidency Press Office, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, right, shakes hands with Gen. Mehmet  Erten, Commander of the Turkish Air Force, in Istanbul Turkey, Monday, June 25, 2012. Upon Turkey's request, NATO will hold a meeting Tuesday in Brussels over article 4 of its charter concerning Friday's incident, when a Turkish warplane was shot down by Syria. (AP Photo/Mustafa Oztartan, Turkish Presidency Press Office, HO)
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In this photo released by the Turkish Presidency Press Office, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, right, shakes hands with Gen. Mehmet Erten, Commander of the Turkish Air Force, in Istanbul Turkey, Monday, June 25, 2012. Upon Turkey's request, NATO will hold a meeting Tuesday in Brussels over article 4 of its charter concerning Friday's incident, when a Turkish warplane was shot down by Syria. (AP Photo/Mustafa Oztartan, Turkish Presidency Press Office, HO)

BRUSSELS (AP) — Syria's downing of a Turkish military jet has the feel of a turning point that could drag Western powers into a conflict that is spiraling out of control.

Turkey said Monday it would push NATO to consider Syria's downing of the RF-4E reconnaissance jet as an attack on the whole military alliance, and added that Syria also had shot at a Turkish search-and-rescue plane shortly after the jet was downed Friday. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has vowed to hold Syria to account, while Britain's foreign minister said Damascus won't be allowed to act with impunity.

But for all the hard talk, the prospect of Western military intervention in Syria remains remote, at best.

For one thing, military action is unlikely to get the support of either the U.N. Security Council or the Arab League, and outside intervention without the blessing of both of those bodies is all but unthinkable. And there is little appetite among the 28 NATO countries — of which the U.S. is the largest — for another war in the Middle East.

Libya was hard enough, and for a many nervous months it looked as if that conflict might end in an embarrassing stalemate for the West. And Syria would be tougher than Libya. Syrian President Bashar Assad's army is better equipped, better trained, better paid and far more loyal than was that of late Libyan leader Moammar Gaddhafi.

So for the moment, despite the increasing violence and the staggering number of deaths, action by the international community seems to be limited to sanctions and strong words.

And so it was on Monday, when foreign ministers from the 27 European Union countries condemned Syria's downing Friday of a Turkish jet, but said the bloc would not support military action in the troubled country.

"What happened is to be considered very seriously," said Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal. Having gotten his denunciation out of the way, he let the other shoe drop: "We do not go for any interventions."

Turkish officials have acknowledged that the jet mistakenly strayed into Syrian airspace, but was warned to leave by Turkish authorities and was a mile (1.6 kilometers) inside international airspace when Syria shot it down. The Turkish pilots are still missing.

Turkey initially called a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, NATO's governing body, on Tuesday to discuss the incident under Article 4 of NATO's founding treaty, which allows a NATO ally to request such a consultation if it feels its territorial integrity or security has been threatened.

Late on Monday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Ankara "has made necessary applications regarding Article 4 and Article 5." Article 5 states that an attack against one NATO member shall be considered an attack against all members.

Arinc also said for the first time that Syrian forces opened ground fire on a CASA search and rescue plane shortly after the downing, but did not say if that plane was hit.

An alliance diplomat said ambassadors will discuss Turkey's concerns — and would likely condemn the downing.

"But there won't be anything more specific than that," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of standing rules.

Turkey has been one of the fiercest critics of Assad's crackdown. But until now, it has had no wish to inflame already-heightened tensions.

A Turkish government official said the government was trying to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on Syria, where activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed in the 15-month uprising. He said the country was still working out what steps to take — though they would not include military intervention.

"We are not talking about war, but we will keep the pressure on Syria and give it no chance to catch its breath," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules.

Mustafa Kibaroglu, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Okan University, said that by calling Tuesday's emergency meeting, Turkey was trying to show Syria that it has the full support of NATO and the European Union.

But he dismissed the possibility the alliance would activate Article 5, despite Turkey's requests.

"Unless there is another ... act of provocation (from Syria), there will be no activation of Article 5," Kibaroglu said.

Syria has said it was unaware that the F-4 Phantom jet belonged to Turkey, and that it was protecting its air space against an unknown intruder. In the past, Israeli warplanes have penetrated Syrian airspace by flying over the Mediterranean coastline.

Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the downing was an accident, caused by the "automatic response" of an officer commanding an anti-aircraft gun. The man saw a jet coming at him at high speed and low altitide and opened fire, Makdissi said.

Analysts said that, although the latest incident will likely be contained, the conflict in Syria is now threatening to draw in other nations.

"Syria's apology will probably quell the immediate outrage," said Barak Seener, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a British military think tank.

"But it's increasingly clear that as the conflict escalates there will be a spillover effect with regional consequences," he said. "While NATO will not get involved yet, this illustrates that international actors will increasingly be sucked into the conflict."

Still, there is a sense of war-weariness in NATO, an aversion to any more involvement in the Middle East after last year's conflict over Libya.

The alliance's primary focus remains the costly war in Afghanistan, where it still has about 130,000 troops, a decade after the ouster of the Taliban regime. Although NATO forces enjoy overwhelming superiority in numbers, firepower and mobility, the guerrillas are showing no sign of giving up.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has repeatedly said that the alliance would need a clear international mandate, and regional support, before it embarked on a mission in Syria.

Last year, NATO launched air attacks on Libyan government targets only after receiving a mandate from the U.N. Security Council, along with backing from the Arab League.

But in Syria's case, the Arab League hasn't been able to agree on the need for military intervention. Even Syria's different opposition groups are riven by divisions over whether outside military intervention would help or hurt. Some in the Syrian opposition argue that it would reduce their country to rubble, leaving them nothing on which to build a new future once Assad was gone.

And Russia and China — both veto-wielding members of the Security Council — have consistently shielded Assad's regime from international sanctions over its violent crackdown on protests. Russia also has continued to provide Syria with arms, despite Western calls for a halt in supplies.

Diplomats from Russia and China in the past have called on all sides to refrain from provocative actions that could escalate the conflict. This would likely include reconnaissance flights over the Syrian coastline.

Last week, President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the Syrian crisis on the sidelines of a Group of 20 economic conference in Mexico.

The meeting ended without apparent agreement on how to end the violence.

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Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Elizabeth Kennedy in Beirut, Lebanon, also contributed to this report.

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