x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Turkish jet was hit by Syrian 'heat-seeking missile'

Syria fired at aircraft sent to search for the wreckage, says vice PM.

ISTANBUL // Syria intentionally shot down a Turkish jet in international airspace with a missile on Friday, Turkey's vice prime minister said yesterday.

Bulent Arinc told the cabinet: "The facts in our possession show that our plane was hit by a heat-seeking guided laser missile."

And Mr Arinc told a televised news conference yesterday that Syrian forces fired on a second Turkish plane that was searching for the wreckage of the downed RF-4E reconnaissance jet.

He did not say whether the search plane was hit but said the Syrians stopped shooting after a warning from the Turkish military. He added Turkey will push Nato today to consider Syria's action as an attack on the whole military alliance.

Mr Arinc said Turkey will press Nato to consider the armed attack under article 5 in a key alliance treaty. The article states that an attack against one Nato member shall be considered an attack against all members.

The downing of the jet has the feel of a turning point that could drag western powers into a conflict that is spiralling out of control.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has vowed to hold Syria to account, while Britain's foreign minister said Damascus won't be allowed to act with impunity.

But for all the hard talk, the prospect of western military intervention in Syria remains remote.

For one thing, military action is unlikely to get the support of either the UN Security Council or the Arab League, and outside intervention without the blessing of both of those bodies is all but unthinkable. And there is little appetite among the 28 Nato countries - of which the US is the largest - for another war in the Middle East.

Libya was hard enough, and for a many nervous months it looked as if that conflict might end in an embarrassing stalemate for the West. And Syria would be tougher than Libya. Syrian president Bashar Al Assad's army is better equipped, better trained, better paid and far more loyal than was that of late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

So for the moment, despite the increasing violence and the staggering number of deaths, action by the international community seems to be limited to sanctions and strong words.

And so it was yesterday, when foreign ministers from the 27 European Union countries condemned Syria's downing of the jet, but said the bloc would not support military action in the country.

"What happened is to be considered very seriously," said Dutch foreign minister Uri Rosenthal. Having got his denunciation out of the way, he let the other shoe drop: "We do not go for any interventions."

Turkish officials have said the jet mistakenly strayed into Syrian airspace, but was warned to leave by Turkish authorities and was 1.6 kilometres inside international airspace when Syria shot it down. The Turkish pilots are still missing.

Turkey immediately called a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, Nato's governing body, for today to discuss the incident. Any Nato member can request such consultations if their territorial integrity has been threatened.

An alliance diplomat said ambassadors will discuss Turkey's concerns - and would likely condemn the downing.

"But there won't be anything more specific than that," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Turkey, too, appeared to be attempting to moderate the situation, trying to balance a response that would assuage domestic outrage over the shooting, while avoiding a conflict. Turkey has been one of the fiercest critics of Mr Al Assad's crackdown. But at this point, it has no wish to inflame tensions.

A Turkish government official said the government was trying to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on Syria, where activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed in the 16-month uprising. He said the country was still working out what steps to take - though they would not include military intervention.

"We are not talking about war, but we will keep the pressure on Syria and give it no chance to catch its breath," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Mustafa Kibaroglu, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Okan University, said that by calling today's meeting, Turkey was trying to show Syria that it has the full support of Nato and the European Union.

Syria has said it was unaware that the jet belonged to Turkey, and that it was protecting its airspace against an unknown intruder. In the past, Israeli warplanes have penetrated Syrian airspace by flying over the Mediterranean coastline.

Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the downing was an accident, caused by the "automatic response" of an officer commanding an anti-aircraft gun. The man saw a jet coming at him at high speed and low altitude and opened fire, Mr Makdissi said.

Analysts said that, although the latest incident will likely be contained, the conflict in Syria is now threatening to draw in other nations.

"Syria's apology will probably quell the immediate outrage," said Barak Seener, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a British military think tank.

"But it's increasingly clear that as the conflict escalates there will be a spillover effect with regional consequences," he said. "While Nato will not get involved yet, this illustrates that international actors will increasingly be sucked into the conflict."

Still, there is a sense of war-weariness in Nato, an aversion to any more involvement in the Middle East after last year's conflict over Libya.

The alliance's primary focus remains the costly war in Afghanistan, where the alliance still has about 130,000 troops, a decade after the ouster of the Taliban regime. Although Nato forces enjoy overwhelming superiority in numbers, firepower and mobility, the guerrillas are showing no sign of giving up.

Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has repeatedly said that the alliance would need a clear international mandate, and regional support, before it embarked on a mission in Syria.

* With Associated Press and Agence France-Presse