x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Downed Turkish plane highlights risk of escalation

Damascus has apologised for shooting down a Turkish plane, but the incident shows how easily the regional crisis could escalate.

On Friday, the Syrian army shot down a Turkish F-4 jet. The details of the incident are still unclear, but so far there is little sign that Ankara will escalate the issue. President Abdullah Gul admitted yesterday that the plane might have violated Syria's airspace.

Damascus has extended an apology to Ankara over the incident. While it is too early to judge, the shooting may have been a genuine mistake, instead of a deliberate provocation. It remains to be seen if the event is linked to a Syrian pilot's defection on Thurday, when he landed his MiG-21 fighter in Jordan - that was a heavy blow against the Syrian air force, which is in charge of the country's airspace.

As the world watches, the regime in Damascus continues its murderous campaign against its own people. Since the beginning of protests last year, there have been persistent fears that the rest of the region will become involved in the violence. Already the conflict may have dragged in other countries - The Guardian reported yesterday that Saudi Arabia is planning to pay the salaries of Free Syrian Army rebels, using Istanbul as a command centre. Reports last week indicated that the CIA is operating in both Syria and Turkey to funnel arms to the rebels. There is a growing risk of an all-out war in the country, if indeed it has not already reached that point.

So far, the incident involving the F-4 has not become a provocation for further hostilities between Turkey and Syria. It should not be allowed to. Regardless of the details, the regime in Damascus might use any escalation to justify further violence.

The downing of the plane starkly emphasises that Syria's crisis is now a regional issue - which demands a regional and multilateral diplomatic action. "The longer we wait, the darker Syria's future becomes, " Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League's special envoy, said at the weekend. "The time to act is now."

The fear is, like in other conflicts in the Middle East, the international community gives up in despair. Indeed, it's time to act decisively and consistently.

The UN-mandated observer mission has been suspended; UN officials have privately admitted that there is no "Plan B". Without a decisive move by the international community, Syria's humanitarian crisis could very soon become a security problem for all of its neighbours.