Army on high alert on Syrian border as Turkey warns of retaliation
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses members of Parliament from his ruling AK Party during a meeting at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara on June 26, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has warned Syria that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have been given instructions to treat any approaching Syrian military unit as a threat, a sign that the Syrian crisis sparked a bilateral conflict between the two neighbors after Syrian forces shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet in the Mediterranean.
Noting that the attack has resulted in a new phase in Turkish-Syrian relations, Erdoğan said it is now clear “[Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad’s regime has become a clear and present danger to Turkey’s security.” “The rules of engagement of the Turkish Armed Forces have changed,” Erdoğan told a meeting of his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Parliament. “Any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria, posing a security risk or danger, will be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target.”
“However valuable Turkey’s friendship is, its wrath is just as strong. Don’t take our common sense and cautious approach as a sign of passivity,” he said.
Hours after Erdoğan’s speech, military vehicles were seen carrying reinforcements to the Syrian border in a sign of escalating tensions along the border. The Cihan news agency reported that some 15 military vehicles, including tanks and long-range artillery vehicles, had been dispatched to the border from Diyarbakır through Mardin.
Turkey has long criticized the Syrian regime for its deadly crackdown on anti-regime protests, but the dispute took a new turn when Syrian forces shot down an unarmed Turkish jet which Ankara said was on a solo mission to test domestic radar systems. Syria described its shooting down of the Turkish F-4 jet as an act of self defense and, while Turkey said the incident would “not go unpunished,” it emphasized that it does not intend to go to war with Syria.
Tensions are already high along the Turkish-Syrian border as Syrian opposition forces and more than 30,000 refugees are given shelter near the border. In April, a clash between opposition fighters and the Syrian army at the border spilled over to the Turkish side, and bullets fired by the Syrian side injured two Turkish nationals at a Syrian refugee camp.
The government’s active support for the Syrian opposition has drawn criticism from some opposition parties, with the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) saying Syria’s shooting down of the Turkish jet was a response to the Turkish government’s policies.
However, Erdoğan defended his government’s support for the Syrian opposition, saying Turkey would remain in solidarity with its brothers in Syria until a new regime is in place. “We will offer all possible support to liberate the Syrians from dictatorship,” said Erdoğan.
Responding to criticism following the jet incident, he said no one should make statements that may hurt the Turkey’s national interests, adding that Turkish political parties should avoid making statements that portray the act of Assad’s regime as innocent and that they should side with their government on this “national issue.”
“The plane that was downed was not the plane of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or of the AK Party. It was Turkey’s plane, shot down in international airspace,” an angry Erdoğan said. “Our military jet was not downed by mistake but was targeted by a hostile and deliberate act,” said Erdoğan, adding there are circles both inside and outside Turkey that were trying to distort the facts.
Stating that the downing of the jet by Syria has nothing to do with a violation of Syria’s airspace, Erdoğan noted that Turkey’s airspace has been violated by other countries 114 times since Jan. 1 of this year. “Syrian helicopters also violated our air space five times recently. We warned them to leave. Syria’s position is also clear evidence that our jet was hit in a hostile act. Syria attacked a second rescue plane with harassing fire, and this is proof that the act was deliberate,” he added.
Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said on Monday that Syrian forces fired on a Turkish military transport plane involved in searching for the F-4 jet, but that the second aircraft was not brought down. He claimed that Turkey’s reconnaissance jet 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.
Underlining that Syria did not issue a warning to the Turkish jet, Erdoğan said: “The Syrian stance is a hostile one. A short violation cannot justify an unfair, unlawful and conscienceless attack.”
“I want to underline the fact that Turkey will use all its rights stemming from international law and take the necessary steps with determination,” said Erdoğan, adding that Turkey will not fall into the traps of warmongers but will not remain silent over the downing of its military jet in international waters, either.
While the incident has further strained relations between the two neighbors, Turkey continues to engage in diplomacy, taking the issue to international platforms, including NATO and the UN.
NATO envoys, at Turkey’s request, convened on Tuesday to discuss the jet incident, and Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen vowed solidarity with Ankara in remarks to the press after the talks. EU foreign ministers on Monday condemned Syria’s downing of the Turkish jet but said the bloc will not support military action in the troubled country.
The United States has also expressed support for Turkey and promised to work with Ankara to hold Syria accountable for what US officials believe was a deliberate act.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States stood in solidarity with Turkey while it investigated last Friday’s lost jet and determined its response. “We will work with Turkey and other partners to hold the Assad regime accountable,” Carney told reporters on board Air Force One as President Barack Obama flew to New Hampshire.
At a Pentagon briefing on Monday, officials said they believed the downing was deliberate. “We don’t have the tick-tock of the decision-making process that led to this aircraft being shot down,” said Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain John Kirby. “The fact is that it was shot down. We believe it was a deliberate act.” Pentagon spokesman George Little added, “And the Syrian regime needs to answer for it.”