General among those who crossed border

The slide in ties between Turkey and Syria remains in focus after dozens of Syrian soldiers defected overnight to Turkey, a few days after the shooting down of a Turkish warplane increased tensions between the two neighbours.

Turkey’s Anatolia news agency is reporting that a general, two colonels, two majors and 30 soldiers crossed the border on Sunday night and entered the Hatay province, signalling that military defections from Syria is gathering momentum. Turkish authorities say 12 Syrian generals have already defected.

Last week a Syrian Air Force pilot was granted asylum in Jordan after he landed his fighter jet in the Hashemite Kingdom. More than 33,000 people have fled into Turkey since Syria’s bloody uprising began last year in March.

The timing of the latest defections fed into growing tensions between the two countries over the shooting down of a Turkish F-4 Phantom fighter jet on Friday by Syrian ground forces. Breaking from the path of studied restraint that both sides seemed to have exercised so far, a war of words began to simmer on Monday. The Syrian side openly contested Turkey’s assertion that its plane had been shot down outside Syrian airspace.

Briefing the media, Syria’s Foreign Office spokesperson Jihad Makdisi stressed the Turkish plane had indeed been downed over Syrian waters. He substantiated his claim by asserting that Syria had used air defence artillery, which has a short range, and not long-range radar guided missile during the attack.

On its part, the Turkish Cabinet was set to convene on Monday to deliberate on the crisis, a day ahead of a meeting of NATO ambassadors in Brussels.

Syria on Monday warned NATO not to escalate tensions. “If the goal of the [NATO] meeting is to calm the situation and promote stability, we wish it success... but if the goal of the meeting is aggression, we say that Syrian airspace, territory and waters are sacred for the Syrian army, just as Turkish airspace, territory and waters are sacred for the Turkish army,” said Mr. Makdisi.

On Monday, Dutch officials signalled that the European Union, many of whose members are part of NATO, was not inclined to add a military dimension to the crisis. Uri Rosenthal, the Dutch Foreign Minister, said the EU would condemn Syria’s downing of the Turkish jet but would oppose military intervention in Syria. “What happened is to be considered very seriously [but] we do not go for any interventions,” he observed.

Nonetheless, the EU is inclined to ratchet up the pressure by piling additional sanctions on Syria. The grouping is set to include a Syrian official, six more firms and government institutions in an expanded sanctions list that already covers more than 120 individuals and around 50 Syrian entities.

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