Tension over downed Turkish jet shows risk of Syria spillover


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In the four days since Syrian air defenses shot down a Turkish military jet, attempts by Ankara and Damascus to contain the security fallout have given way to accusations, veiled threats and fears of a widening regional conflict.

The downing of the F-4 Phantom jet, which was condemned by European Union foreign ministers on Monday, served as a stark reminder of the risks of unintended spillover from Syria’s 16-month-old clash between government forces and rebels.


Diplomatic reaction to the incident also has spotlighted the inability of the international community to do more than issue verbal censure and revisit already rejected proposals for more forceful intervention.

“I think it is still important that we continue to work on a political solution,’ German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Luxembourg, where his EU colleagues condemned Syria’s downing of the plane as ‘unacceptable’ but made clear there was no appetite for military measures to restrain Damascus.

Recent massacres in Syria have sent thousands fleeting into Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, spurring outcries from those countries over the security and humanitarian burdens imposed by large numbers of displaced opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Syria’s downing of the F-4 heightened tensions with once-allied Turkey, which called on the NATO alliance to review the incident and discuss how the 28-state North Atlantic Council should respond. But Ankara showed restraint -- this time -- in declining to call for retaliation for the assault on a member state.

‘I think this was an exclamation point but not necessarily a turning point’ in the Syrian conflict’s risks for the region, said Charles Ries, a career U.S. diplomat now heading Rand Corp.’s Center for Middle East Public Policy. ‘It was an event that shows how close the forces are and how carelessness on one side or another can lead to something significant.’

The Syrian air defense unit that fired on the F-4 was guarding the port of Latakia and may have been following orders to prevent any aerial reconnaissance by foreign aircraft, Ries said. He speculated that the Syrians may have been unloading weapons or other sensitive cargo.


While the downing of the Turkish plane has riled Syria’s neighbors, it isn’t likely to step up the pressure for NATO or other foreign forces to declare no-fly zones to ground Assad’s air assets, said Ries.

‘This is a good illustration of how difficult a military task it would be to impose a no-fly zone over the region. Unlike the Libyans, Syria has sophisticated antiaircraft defenses, and it would be much more dangerous and difficult a task,’ Ries said, contrasting the challenge of enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria with the easier task accomplished by NATO in Libya last year.

Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace also sees Syrian air defenses as a more daunting risk for the West should it opt for more aggressive intervention. He said any attempt by the international community to hamper Assad’s air operations would require more preliminary strikes against Syrian air defenses than were needed in Libya.

‘I don’t think the shoot-down revealed any new Syrian capabilities or tactics -- nothing that Washington didn’t already know,’ Wehrey said. ‘It does show the Syrians have hair-trigger rules of engagement.’

Of greater concern to Middle East analysts monitoring the Syrian crisis are the refugee outflows that are imposing humanitarian burdens on such countries as Turkey, where the displaced are said to number upward of 30,000, and putting strains on delicate ethnic and sectarian balances, most precariously in Lebanon.

‘The Turks have already been drawn in by the large numbers of refugees from Syria, and by their support for some elements of the Free Syrian Army,’ said Mohamad Bazzi, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar of Middle East affairs.


Syria has justified its action in shooting down the F-4 with claims that it felt threatened by the air-space incursion, an apologetic posture likely to allow shaken relations with Turkey to settle down over time as long as it remains an isolated incident, Bazzi said.

‘They can be trigger-happy once, but they are not going to get away with it again,’ Bazzi said, pointing to reports that Syrian air defenses shot at a second Turkish plane on Monday.

Analysts see a wave of defections from Syria’s military in recent days as evidence that Assad is losing his grip on the armed forces. Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported 33 soldiers defected to the rebel side early Monday, including a general and two colonels.

‘There are indications that the Syrian military is spread more thinly now than at the beginning,’ Bazzi said. ‘There have been reports for months now that various military units have been confined to barracks because the regime is worried about large-scale defections.’

That is a development that heralds the eventual toppling of Assad, the experts said, but it also raises the risk of accelerating cross-border flows of refugees, fighters and weapons in the meantime.


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-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles