BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO allies on Tuesday condemned Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish military plane as unacceptable but they stopped short of threatening any military response that might drag them into a conflict with Syria’s government.
Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after an emergency meeting in Brussels of ambassadors from NATO’s 28 member states that Turkey had the support of all its partners.
“The security of the alliance is indivisible, we stand together with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity,” Rasmussen said. “We consider this act to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest terms.”
Ankara had called the meeting of NATO’s North Atlantic Council to discuss the incident, which it has described as an act of aggression.
Asked what his ambassador had requested from his NATO colleagues, a Turkish official said: “Not action at this stage.”
Damascus said it downed the aircraft in self-defense after it strayed into Syrian airspace.
The meeting was only the second time in NATO’s 63-year history that members have convened under Article 4 of its charter, after Turkey requested talks about the Iraq war in 2003. The article provides for consultations when a member state feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security is under threat.
The NATO response contained a warning on Syria not to repeat such action but avoided any hint that the incident might lead to action.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are trying to suppress an uprising against his rule that broke out 16 months ago. Even defensive measures by NATO allies would risk sucking them into the conflict.
“There is very little appetite from the alliance to undertake what we call a discretionary war,” said Clara Marina O’Donnell, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Turkey’s decision to seek consultation under Article 4, instead of asking for military help under the organization’s collective defense provisions, known as Article 5, suggested Ankara was also hoping to steer clear of inflaming the conflict.
Rasmussen told a briefing after Tuesday’s consultations that Article 5 had not been raised in the discussions.
“It’s my clear expectation that the situation won’t continue to escalate,” he said. “I would expect Syria to take all necessary steps to avoid such events in the future as regards to the developments in the region.”
A NATO official said the Turks made “a very detailed and very clear case” to the other ambassadors, but declined to give further details of the meeting.
“There was strong solidarity” with Turkey, said the official. “They continue to keep this very high on their agenda and consultation will continue.”
As the meeting was underway, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan warned Syria against any escalation of tensions.
“Every military element approaching Turkey from the Syrian border and representing a security risk and danger will be assessed as a military threat and will be treated as a military target,” he said in a speech to party members.
Turkey has rejected Syria’s assertion that its forces had no option but to fire on the F-4 reconnaissance plane as it flew over Syrian waters close to the coast on Friday.
In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, Turkey condemned a “hostile act by the Syrian authorities against Turkey’s national security”, saying it posed “a serious threat to peace and security in the region”.
Syria warned Turkey and NATO against retaliation and EU foreign ministers on Monday urged Turkey to show restraint.
The unarmed plane had briefly entered Syrian airspace as it approached land after patrolling the eastern Mediterranean, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said, but was warned by Turkish radar controllers and immediately left and turned again out to sea.
It then made another approach to land when it was shot down 13 miles off the coast in international airspace, he said, out of the reach of Syria’s anti-aircraft guns
“According to the data in our hands, it points to our plane being shot by a laser or heat-guided surface-to-air missile. The fact our plane was not given an early radar warning, suggests it was not a radar-guided missile,” said Arinc.
Turkey was close to Syria before the uprising against Assad. But it now shelters the rebel Free Syria Army and hosts 32,000 Syrian refugees on its southeastern border with Syria, some 50 km (30 miles) from where the Turkish aircraft was shot down. It denies providing arms for the insurgents.
Additional reporting by Ethan Bilby; Editing by Angus MacSwan