NATO is likely to strongly condemn Syria for shooting down a Turkish reconnaissance jet and declare solidarity with Turkey, and may even send a message to Damascus that repetition of such a hostile action will not go unpunished, when it meets on Tuesday.
But the alliance is as reluctant as ever to pledge military action against Turkey's troubled neighbor, and Ankara, conscious of obstacles, is not in the mood to push for such a commitment either.
Turkey called for emergency talks under article 4 of NATO's founding treaty after its F4 Phantom jet was shot down by Syria on Friday. The meeting has raised the possibility that Ankara may seek NATO intervention by invoking Article 5, the collective defense clause, although Turkish officials have not raised Article 5 as an option.
Ankara is not expected to seek to invoke Article 5 when the NATO envoys meet on Tuesday, because, observers say, without pre-existing consensus within NATO on embarking on a Syria mission, any initiative by Turkey to invoke the collective defense article would be detrimental to both itself and NATO, as this would expose rifts within the alliance and undermine the message of solidarity intended to be conveyed to Damascus.
“Under the current circumstances, it is difficult for NATO to agree on a military intervention in Syria,” said Özdem Sanberk, a former diplomat and esteemed foreign policy commentator who now heads the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK). Not only are some members wary of antagonizing Russia, but the alliance's heavyweight, the United States, will also stick to its “hands-off” policy in order not to find itself involved in another military adventure ahead of upcoming presidential elections.
“Turkey is doing what it should be doing: seeking solidarity from its NATO allies in the face of this hostile act,” said former diplomat İnal Batu, referring to Friday’s incident. “It is not engaged in warmongering.”
Sanberk further remarked Ankara will avoid steps that may further complicate the Syrian conflict. “Turkey is not going to give up on this matter, but it will also not allow the situation to spiral out of control,” he said, without elaborating.
Experts say Turkey would be justified in seeking an apology and compensation for the downed plane, while warning against military retaliation.
“Economic and political retaliation can be an option, but a military retaliation, such as shooting down a Syrian plane, would be an illegal step,” said Yücel Acer, an international law expert at Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University.
One such measure could be to cut electricity supplies to Syria, Energy Minister Taner Yıldız suggested on Monday. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is expected to announce any retaliatory measures during an address to his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) on Tuesday.
Attack or not? Conflicting accounts
Throughout the alliance’s history, Article 5 has been invoked extremely rarely. In fact, it was invoked and acted upon only once, after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all,” the article reads. But with Turkey and Syria offering conflicting accounts of how the incident happened, and the downing of the jet being a one-off incident rather than an extensive attack threatening the security of the entire alliance, NATO is unlikely to resort to Article 5 for a second time over Syria.
Ankara says the aircraft was in international airspace when it was hit and subsequently crashed in Syrian territorial waters only because the pilot lost control of the plane following the attack. Syria, on the other hand, says the plane was flying fast and low, just a kilometer off the Syrian coast when it was shot down, and that the shooting of the plane was not a hostile act because the Turkish identity of the plane was not known. On Monday, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi insisted that the Turkish plane was flying at an altitude of 100 meters inside the Syrian airspace in “a clear breach of Syrian sovereignty,” and suggested that the plane was hit at close range, saying that the jet was shot down by anti-aircraft fire rather than by radar-guided missile. “The bullets only have a range of 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles),” he said.
“We had to react immediately. Even if the plane was Syrian we would have shot it down,” Makdissi added, adding that despite the incident Syria remains committed to a “neighborly relationship” with Turkey.
With the wreckage of the plane lying in deep water in the Mediterranean and the two crewmen still missing, conflicting accounts wait to be checked against data to be retrieved from the aircraft.
Some experts say even if the jet was hit in international waters, the incident was an isolated one not threatening the security of the entire alliance. And downing a jet in response to violation of airspace is not uncommon either.
“In the past Greece also downed Turkish planes. Therefore, in every jet incident a self-defense right does not occur,” Çanakkale University’s Acer said, adding the downed jet incident cannot be a reason for NATO to launch a military intervention to Syria.
“It’s virtually inconceivable that the North Atlantic Council would deem this to be a qualifying ‘attack’,” wrote James Joyner, managing editor of the Atlantic Council. “While the Turkish pilot would certainly have been within his rights to use deadly force to protect himself, a retaliatory strike at this juncture by Turkey -- much less its NATO allies -- would be in violation of the UN Charter. Second, Article 5 specifies the rationale for the use of force as ‘to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.’ Given that the incident is already contained -- that is, not likely to be followed by any sort of follow-on action by Syria absent further provocation -- said security already exists.”
Commenting on the NATO meeting, Syria’s Makdissi warned his country will defend itself in the event of a threat from the alliance. “NATO is supposed to be there to strengthen countries,” he said. “If their meeting is for hostile reasons [they should know that] Syrian land and waters are sacred.”
*Sinem Cengiz in Ankara contributed to reporting.