All the newspapers reported the Syrian downing of a Turkish military jet yesterday off the Syrian coast. And all the papers as well as the electronic media have reported the joint Syrian–Turkish effort to locate the pilots, and the various statements of the two sides about what happened and who is to blame for it.
There are several natural, even inevitable, ambiguities here, as is usual when a thing like this happens. Originally, the Turkish plane was said to be a U.S.-made F-4, but some have reasoned that it might have been a reconnaissance aircraft instead. The Syrian authorities claimed that the plane was flying within Syrian airspace; Turkish officials at first did not deny this but rather said they were trying to establish the plane’s exact whereabouts, noting in passing that given the long border between the two countries a little sky-wandering this way and that does not constitute a good reason for shooting down an aircraft. A few hours later the Turks said the plane did stray a bit into Syrian airspace, but then the pilots were so informed and ordered to leave. They did, and the Syrians fired on the plane, without warning, after it had left Syrian airspace—13 miles offshore as opposed to 12. The Syrians, meanwhile, claimed that they were merely protecting their sovereignty and intended by the shootdown no belligerent message to Turkey. Indeed, some officials denied even knowing that the plane was Turkish at all.
All these people are lying in effect, even as they are probably telling the truth selectively. Everyone knows that the Turkish military is supplying the Syrian opposition. Everyone knows that doing reconnaissance over Syria is part and parcel of that support. Everyone knows that under such circumstances Syrian air defenses will be on relatively high alert, especially after the defection of one of their pilots to Jordan last week. Of course it was a hostile action to fly in low and fast, and of course it was a hostile action to shoot at the plane without warning, in the context of what both sides generally understand to be a hostile situation. The papers tell us everything except those aspects of the truth that really matter.
All this begs the question, however, of what the Turks will do about this. Turkish President Abdullah Gül has been clear that Turkey cannot simply look the other way and ignore such matters. On the other hand, if the Turks wanted to go to war with Syria, they could have done so weeks and even months ago. How the Turks do respond will tell us something interesting about how they see the situation, and that includes not only the situation inside of Syria, but the situation inside the U.S. government and, by extension, NATO. So the Turks have asked for an emergency NATO meeting based on Article IV (not V) of the Treaty.
The Turks are not going to do, and have not done, anything bold or very dangerous (like, for example, using its air force to scare away Russian ships bringing supplies to the Syrian regime) until and unless they know that the United States has its back. Do we now have their back? If we do, that’s news, because we didn’t have it when it might have really done some good several months ago.
So let’s wait and see how this NATO session turns out and what the U.S. government’s body language looks like in the process. We could be on the verge of a significant change of policy direction in regard to Syria, for better or for worse.