Turkey’s Erdogan brands Assad a cruel dictator

Military tensions between Turkey and Syria rose several notches on Tuesday after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Damascus of decisive action against border violations.

Mr. Erdogan’s blunt assertion followed a meeting of NATO representatives in Brussels, where the alliance warned Syria of stronger action in the future. The meeting was called after Syria on Friday downed a Turkish jet which was apparently on a reconnaissance mission.

While Syria maintains it was a legitimate act of self-defence as the aircraft was shot down over its airspace, Turkey claims it violated international law. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insists that the F-4 Phantom aircraft of the Turkish Air Force was over international waters, after briefly straying into Syrian airspace by accident.

After the meeting, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the downing of the plane belonging to Turkey — a member of the military alliance — was “unacceptable”.

“I would certainly expect that such an incident won’t happen again,” Mr. Rasmussen said at a news conference. He added that NATO would monitor developments and “if necessary, consult and discuss what else could be done”.

As NATO headed for consultations, Russia (Syria’s key ally) counselled restraint. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Glushko said Tuesday’s meeting in Brussels “could be considered as a very disturbing signal that there is a possible escalation of the situation around Syria”.

With NATO’s support secured, Mr. Erdogan went on the offensive. In his address to Parliament, attended by Arab diplomats, he warned Syria that the rules of engagement had changed. “Every military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria in a manner that constitutes a security risk or danger would be considered as a threat and would be treated as a military target,” he said.

Mr. Erdogan’s combative assertion marks a decisive shift in the stance of Turkey, which had on five recent occasions not responded to the violation of Turkish airspace by Syrian helicopters. “From here, we warn the Syrian regime not to make any mistakes, not to test Turkey’s decisiveness and wisdom.”

The Turkish Prime Minister used the occasion to stress the continuation of Ankara’s support for the Syrian opposition against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “We will continue to act in solidarity with our brothers until the Syrian people are freed of this cruel dictator,” he declared. The harsh characterisation of the Syrian President seemed to suggest that Turkey’s ties with the Assad regime were now beyond repair.

Earlier on Monday, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi said the wreckage of the downed Turkish plane “shows holes in the tail-end of the plane which confirm that it was shot down by a ground-based machine gun, not missiles”. “Had the aircraft been over territorial waters, we would have used missiles, not a land-based antiaircraft machine gun with a maximum range of 2.5 kilometres,” he observed. “All of this confirms the falsity of the allegations that the aircraft was shot down outside Syrian territorial waters.”

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