ISTANBUL -- With the backing of the NATO alliance, which unanimously condemned Syria for shooting down an unarmed Turkish reconnaissance plane last week, Turkey warned Tuesday that its military will be prepared to attack any Syrian military element that crossed their common border.
Turkey’s wrath is “strong and devastating,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech to legislators of his Justice and Development Party in which he announced new rules of engagement for the military.
“Every military element approaching Turkey from the Syrian border and representing a security risk and danger will be assessed as a military threat and will be treated as a military target,” he said.
In Washington, an Obama administration official declined to discuss the details of the downing of the Turkish aircraft other than to say it confirmed a U.S. belief, voiced in briefings earlier this year, that Syria’s air-defense system is “robust” and would pose "an extraordinary challenge." to Western militaries if they attempted to impose a no-fly zone over the country. In those briefings, officials said the Syrian air defense system included surface-to-air missiles as well as more traditional anti-aircraft weapons and 500 military aircraft. The official spoke under a condition of anonymity imposed at the time of the original briefing.
Erdogan said five Syrian helicopters had made incursions into Turkish territory in the past year, but they were peacefully warned to leave.
From this point on, “There’s no more Mr. Nice Guy,” Selcuk Unal, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, told McClatchy.
Despite the open warning, Turkey has taken care not to escalate Friday’s shoot-down of the U.S.-built F-4 Phantom into a military confrontation, and key Western allies have expressed relief at Turkey’s restraint.
Moreover, Erdogan’s remarks made clear that the Turkish military would act only after weighing “the security risk,” a step the Syrian government admitted it had failed to do when its forces shot down the plane. Or, as the Turkish ministry spokesman put it, “We reserve our right to take the necessary steps at a time and method of our choosing.”
Still, the Turkish rhetoric was several notches more emotional Tuesday than it had in previous days, possibly a reaction to what the government in Ankara views as an unacceptable response by the autocratic government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Erdogan said the Assad regime, which has deployed all its military and intelligence forces to fight a nationwide pro-democracy insurrection, didn’t represent the Syrian people.
“The current Syrian administration is a tyrannical regime that murders its own people,” Erdogan said, adding that Assad’s regime “has lost all legitimacy.”
Syria “already has become an unstable threat in Turkey’s neighborhood,” the Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
Turkish officials say Syria attacked the plane without warning, lied about the incident and then failed to apologize.
Syria claimed it brought down the plane over its airspace using an automatic anti-aircraft system without knowing that it was Turkish. Turkey said Syria brought down the plane over international waters – 15 minutes after the aircraft had crossed inadvertently into Syrian airspace – and that radio intercepts proved the Syrians knew the plane was Turkish.
Syria’s stance “is a hostile one” and the short violation of airspace “cannot justify an unfair, unlawful and unconscionable attack,” Erdogan said Tuesday.
Adding insult to injury, Syrian jets strafed a Turkish search-and-rescue plane that had crossed into Syrian airspace with permission after the shoot-down, Turkish officials said.
“We brought the plane back and we told (the Syrians): ‘Look what you’re doing,’ ” spokesman Unal said. “They gave no explanation. They said it won’t happen again.”
The F-4 went down in about 3,000 feet of water, and there’s been no sign of the two-man crew. Turkish media identified them as Goekhan Ertan, the captain, and Hueseyin Aksoy, the co-pilot.
In Brussels, the North Atlantic Council met Tuesday at Turkey’s request under Article Four of the NATO treaty, which provides for consultations at the request of any party to the pact. In a statement that followed, NATO members said they considered the Syrian shoot-down “to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest possible terms.” The statement said it was another example of the Syrian authorities’ “disregard for international norms, peace and security and human life.”
It was only the second time in NATO’s history that such consultations were held, the first occasion being in 2003, also at Turkey’s request. The timing of the meeting, four days after the incident, and the fact that Turkey hadn’t requested the consultation under Article Five, which provides for allied military support, underscores that NATO, too, was giving a measured response.
Turkish leaders have been chafing since the Syrian uprising began early last year that key Western partners, starting with the United States, refuse to take a lead in possible military action to bring down the Assad government, officials say.
Even though more than 30,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey, bringing tales of Syrian government attacks on civilians and the widespread use of torture, Turkey also has been unwilling to take the lead beyond allowing rebel fighters to cross the border freely, coming to Turkey to recuperate and returning to Syria with cash, supplies and weapons.
Matthew Schofield contributed to this report from Washington.