Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Tuesday. (AFP)
Istanbul, June 26: Buoyed by support from his country’s Nato allies, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Syrian forces today to stay clear of their troubled border or face a Turkish military response to any perceived threat, following the disputed downing of a Turkish warplane.
The Turkish leader’s bellicose tone came as ambassadors from the Nato alliance, seeking to avoid a wider conflict, held emergency talks in Brussels at Turkey’s behest. After the meeting, the Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said the alliance considered Syria’s actions in shooting down a Turkish warplane last Friday “unacceptable”.
In a unanimous statement, the Nato allies called the episode “another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard for international norms, peace and security, and human life”. Turkey is a member of the alliance.
“I would certainly expect that such an incident won’t happen again,” Rasmussen said at a news conference at Nato headquarters in Brussels. He added that the alliance would closely follow developments and “if necessary, consult and discuss what else could be done”.
In Ankara, Erdogan said Turkey had revised its military rules of engagement towards Syria.
“Every military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria in a manner that constitutes a security risk or danger would be considered as a threat and would be treated as a military target,” he said in a speech to lawmakers attended by Arab diplomats.
“From here, we warn the Syrian regime not to make any mistakes, not to test Turkey’s decisiveness and wisdom,” Erdogan said.
“If there is anyone who could not understand this up until today, we would and will prove in the most clear and determined way that Turkey cannot be challenged,” he said.
While Syria maintains that the plane was brought down well within its airspace, Turkey says the two-seat F-4 fighter plane was attacked over international waters after straying briefly into Syrian space. “Our plane was targeted not by mistake but deliberately, entirely in an act of hostility,” Erdogan said. “At a time, place and method defined by itself, Turkey will make use of its rights that derive from international law and firmly take necessary steps against this injustice.” He did not elaborate on what those steps might be.
Turkey and Syria share strong historical and cultural ties, and were both ruled by the Ottoman Empire for centuries, until the empire collapsed and the modern Turkish Republic was founded almost 90 years ago. Before the Syrian revolt broke out in 2011, Edrogan had pursued a strong regional friendship with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, but there was no trace of that warmth in Erdogan’s address today.
Since then, the 885km border has become a critical fault line and potential flash point, used by an increasingly sophisticated network of activists in southern Turkey smuggling crucial supplies into Syria including weapons, communications gear, field hospitals and even salaries for soldiers who defect.
At the same time, it has offered escape routes to tens of thousands of fugitive Syrian civilians and to increasingly high-ranking military defectors, the most recent on Sunday. Turkey’s role in support of the rebels, thus, has cast it as a frontline in the regional struggle for Syria’s future. “We will continue to support the struggle of our Syrian brothers at all costs,” Erdogan said today.