Turkey, NATO lash out at Syria

Beirut - In the case of its downed fighter jet, Turkey's bark has proved mightier than its bite.

For days, Turkey has been warning neighboring Syria about the possible consequences of the shooting down of a Turkish fighter plane in what Ankara says was international airspace in the eastern Mediterranean.

On Tuesday, however, in a much-anticipated address to Parliament, Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan made clear there would be no immediate retaliatory strike or military action against Syria.

The premier did redefine Turkey's neighbor and former ally as "a clear and imminent threat" and even denounced Syrian President Bashar Assad, once a friend and vacation partner, as a "bloody dictator."

But Turkey's response could be seen more as symbolic bluster than decisive action from a regional powerhouse that views itself as an emerging player on the global stage.

"However valuable Turkey's friendship is, its wrath is just as strong," Erdogan warned. "Don't take our common-sense and cautious approach as a sign of passivity."

His words continued a general narrative of tough words but restrained actions coming from the Turkish side.

The prime minister did unveil robust new rules of engagement that could interpret any Syrian military move toward the two nations' common borders as a threat meriting a response. But the details were vague, and Turkey's hesitancy to be dragged into a potential Syrian quagmire seemed evident.

The NATO alliance that includes Turkey also reaffirmed Tuesday that, although deploring Syria's action, it wants no part of intervention in Syria's internal bloodletting.

The measured responses again underscore how outside nations have no desire to intervene in Syria, which is now entering its 16th month of a bloody rebellion that has cost more than 10,000 lives.

Despite its outrage at the jet incident, Turkey has continued to maintain its traditional reluctance to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations.

Among the most common proposals to protect vulnerable Syrian civilians is creation of a "buffer zone" along the Turkish-Syrian border as a haven. But such a move would require a military takeover of Syrian territory, a project that has not been embraced by Turkey or any other nation.

The Turkish prime minister told parliament that Syrian helicopters had violated Turkish airspace on five recent occasions, drawing warnings. But Erdogan clearly suggested that future incursions may be met with force.

Hours after Erdogan's speech, Turkish media reported on military reinforcements heading to the area bordering Syria and a state of "high alert" among troops in the area.

Turkey has tacitly backed the Syrian rebellion, providing haven for rebel fighters and refugees fleeing the fighting. Ankara has joined Washington and other allied capitals in demanding that Assad step down.

One concrete step that Turkey could take is to bolster its support for Syria's rebels, openly or covertly.

Ankara has denied Syrian charges and media reports that it is already facilitating the flow of arms and fighters into Syria. While hosting rebels, refugees and opposition fronts, Turkey has tried to cultivate an image of distance from the insurgent campaign.

The new wave of criticism directed at Syria on Tuesday seemed unlikely to have much of an effect on Assad, who has weathered waves of global condemnation for what critics call his brutal crackdown on a rebellion that began March 2011.

The latest crisis between the onetime allies erupted Friday when Syrian antiaircraft batteries shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom fighter jet off the coast of Syria's Latakia province.

Syria says the aircraft was hit well within Syrian airspace, with old-fashioned antiaircraft guns that have a range of less than two miles.

Turkey says its jet was shot down in international airspace without a warning shortly after it inadvertently wandered into Syrian skies. Turkey has denied the jet was on any kind of spying mission or testing Syria's air defenses.

The jet's two crew members remained unaccounted for.


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