Saturday, June 23, 2012

Syria shoots down Turkish jet, raises tensions in NATO

There was the threat of a serious escalation of the developing civil war in Syria last night after the country admitted it downed a Turkish fighter that was said to be "flying in airspace over Syrian waters".

The F-4 Phantom disappeared over the Mediterranean, south-west of Turkey's Hatay province, near the Syrian coast. The Turkish military said it lost radio contact with the F-4 at 11:58 local time [08:58 GMT] while it was flying over Hatay, about 90 minutes after it took off from Erhac airbase in the province of Malatya, to the north-west [BBC / Sky]. 

Deteriorating relationship

Relations between Nato-member Turkey and Syria, once close allies, have deteriorated sharply since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled the violence across the border into Turkey.

While such actions could be the last desperate attempts by Assad's regime to assert their power and authority, they could draw in other countries which could quickly escalate the fighting in the region.

Defectors & collaborators

This week has seen signs that the Assad regime is crumbling after a MiG-21 fighter pilot defected to Jordan [BBC]. Meanwhile pressure on countries that have been propping up the regime has increased.

This week saw a Russian cargo ship turned back in Scottish waters amid claims it was transporting military helicopters to Syria. The MV Alaed turned around in the North Sea, about 80 km from the Scottish coast, after its London-based insurer withdrew third-party liability cover. The British authorities forced the move, suspecting that the ship was taking arms to Syria.

The Russian foreign ministry later confirmed that the ship was carrying three MI-25 attack helicopters, newly reconditioned under a contract with Syria's armed forces, and an air defence system. But the forced retreat will only delay the delivery. The vessel is due to be re-flagged under Russian colours and then sent to Syria to complete the delivery. "[The helicopters] are the property of the Syrian side and must be returned to the Syrian Arab Republic after repairs," said a foreign ministry spokesman in Moscow [Telegraph].

Diplomatic minefield

It is Syria's close relationship with Russia that is a major stumbling block in trying to iron out a peaceful resolution to the ongoing crisis in Syria. A Libya style assault would not be greeted well by Russia, who have opposed every call for intervention.

The geography also poses difficulties for the West. Syria borders Turkey, to the north, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, countries with diverse political, ethnic and religious differences.

The West particularly fear being dragged into another Iraq, or worse. And despite the atrocities being committed on the ground, so far leaders have only resorted to harsh words, criticism, and the implementation of sanctions, all of which have seemed to have had very little effect.

Act of war

While the shooting down of a Turkish jet is undoubtedly serious, and could even be interpreted as an act of war, Turkey is unlikely to retaliate, least of all unilaterally. As a member of NATO the act of aggression against any one member could be seen as a breach of Chapter 5 of the alliance's treaty. An attack on one state might thus be seen as an attack on all states belonging to NATO. But while Syria has the continuing support of Russia, and to a lesser degree China, few countries will want to suffer the ire of either.

There will undoubtedly be harsh words coming from western officials, and anger from the Turkish population. But the likelihood of military retaliation is slim.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

No comments: