NATO on Tuesday condemned Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish military plane as unacceptable, but stopped short of threatening any military response.
At an emergency meeting in Brussels of ambassadors from NATO’s 28 member states, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that Turkey had the support of all its partners.
“The security of the alliance is indivisible, we stand together with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity,” Rasmussen said. “We consider this act to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest terms.”
Ankara requested the meeting of NATO’s North Atlantic Council to discuss the incident, which it has described as an act of aggression. Damascus claims it downed the aircraft in self-defense after it strayed into Syrian airspace. Turkey has rejected assertions from Damascus that its forces had no option but to fire on the F-4 reconnaissance plane as it flew over Syrian waters close to the coast on Friday.
Rasmussen declined to answer a question about how long the Turkish jet loitered in Syrian air space before heading out to sea again, saying he didn’t want to discuss details.
The meeting was only the second occasion in NATO’s 63-year history that members have convened under Article 4 of its charter, which provides for consultations when a member state feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security is under threat.
The last time the article was invoked was in 2003, again by Turkey, on the eve of the US-led invasion of Iraq. The alliance then launched Operation Display Deterrence, sending five Patriot interceptor missile batteries and four Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) surveillance aircraft to be deployed to Turkey to ensure its security in the event of a possible attack from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
While supporting member nation Turkey, NATO is now trying to tread carefully, wary of initiating a conflict that Western governments are reluctant to join in militarily out of fear of a regional sectarian war.
“There is very little appetite from the alliance to undertake what we call a discretionary war,” said Clara Marina O’Donnell, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Turkey’s decision to seek consultation under Article 4, instead of asking for military help under the organization’s collective defense provisions, known as Article 5, suggests Ankara is also hoping to steer clear of inflaming the conflict.
“This is a signal from Turkey that they are not too keen to go down the military route at this stage. They are trying to de-escalate the situation,” O’Donnell said.
Rasmussen told a briefing after Tuesday’s consultations that Article 5 had not been raised in the discussions.
“It’s my clear expectation that the situation won’t continue to escalate,” he said. “I would expect Syria to take all necessary steps to avoid such events in the future in regards to the developments in the region.”
In a letter to the UN Security Council, Turkey condemned a “hostile act by the Syrian authorities against Turkey’s national security,” saying it posed “a serious threat to peace and security in the region.”
Syria warned Turkey and NATO against retaliation. EU foreign ministers on Monday urged Turkey to show restraint, saying they would increase pressure on President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey had drawn close to Syria before the uprising against Assad broke out 16 months ago but turned against him when he responded violently to pro-democracy protests inspired by upheavals elsewhere in the Arab world.
Turkey shelters opposition Free Syria Army (FSA) fighters and hosts 32,000 Syrian refugees on its southeastern border with Syria, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) from where the Turkish aircraft was shot down. It denies providing arms to the opposition.