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Why Turkey is holding back, for now, after Syria downed its jet

NATO and Turkey talked tough about Syria's shooting down of a Turkish military jet at an emergency summit in Brussels today. But they sought to calm fears of a broader escalation.

By Staff writer / June 26, 2012

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the lawmakers of his Justice and Development Party at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, June 26.

Burhan Ozbilici/AP

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Istanbul, Turkey

At an emergency summit today, NATO and Turkey denounced Syria's shooting down of a Turkish military jet four days ago but sought to calm fears of a broader escalation between the neighbors.

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Syria's shooting down of the jet was a deliberate and "heinous act" that has "changed" the rules of engagement for Turkish armed forces, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told parliament today. Any Syrian military approach along their shared border will now be treated as a "threat" and a military target.

At a time when Turkey is hosting political and armed opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Erdogan made clear that Turkey's response was deliberate and calculated but warned that that should not be taken as a "sign of weakness."

Likewise, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen dialed back chances of a forceful response as the alliance met at Turkey's request in Brussels. Still, he said that downing the aging F-4 Phantom plane was a "completely unacceptable act."  

Turkey and its NATO allies, despite talking tough, want to avoid getting entangled in Syria, where an uprising and insurgency continue for a fifteenth month. According to UN sources, as many as 14,000 have died so far. The conflict has taken on the flavor of a regional tug-of-war, with Syria and its Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah allies on one side, pitted against Turkey and its US and European allies, which want to see Mr. Assad toppled.

"The government of Turkey has absolutely zero wish to be dragged into anything in Syria; they can see it's a complete mess," says Hugh Pope, a veteran Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group.

"The only way Turkey will ever get involved in anything there is with complete international cover," says Mr. Pope. "They're going to NATO, they're going to international fora. It's all about [Turkey] being seen to do the right thing, it's not about hatching dark plots in the night with cruise missiles and taking things out [in revenge]."

Casus belli?

Erdogan said that Turkey was a brotherly, reliable nation, but that its "rage is very severe and intense" when warranted – a line that prompted chanting from Turkish parliamentarians.

Erdogan admitted that the Turkish jet had briefly been inside Syrian airspace, but insisted it was back in international air space by the time it was fired upon. He accused Syria of shooting down a clearly marked unarmed jet on a "training and test flight," without warning. "A short-term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack," he said.

Typical protocol required Syria to send out radio warnings first, and then scramble its own aircraft to warn the intruder, says Metehan Demir, a former military correspondent with close ties to the Turkish armed forces. "If those measures do not give a result, the last step is firing," he says.

Turkey claims Syria used a longer-range missile, which would make it more plausible that the jet was shot down outside Syrian territory. But the Syrians claim they used shorter-range anti-aircraft guns and say the Turkish jet was flying very low and well within their territorial waters, which they declared "sacred."

Turkey claims a second recovery jet which appeared shortly afterward was also shot at by the Syrians, adding to some reports in the Turkish press that Damascus "should pay."

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