Could Syria-Turkey Conflict Pull NATO In?

The shooting down by Syrian anti-aircraft batteries of a Turkish F-4 Phantom jet flying over international waters a few days ago has the potential to internationalize the Syrian revolution and pull in NATO.

In the absence of a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against the Syrian state, France and other European powers have felt hamstrung.

Russia and China are blocking a UNSC resolution, largely because they want Syria in the sphere of influence of the Shanghai Cooperation Council (Russia, the Central Asian states and China, with Iran as an observer). They don’t want it to become a NATO sphere of influence. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and the Russian Arabists who advise him view Syria as a long-time Russian client that gives them a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean (Russia leases a naval base at Tartous from Syria).

But in the United Nations Charter, there are two grounds for war. One is self-defense. The other is a UNSC resolution designating a state as a source of disorder in the international system.

By firing on the Turkish plane (more especially in international waters), Syria has presented Turkey with a legitimate casus belli, a legal cause for war. The news that Syria actually tried to shoot down a second Turkish plane underscores this legal point. Turkey may defend itself. (For the moment, Turkey is considering non-military responses such as cutting off electricity to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.) [The plane was shot down over international waters; it may have veered into Syrian airspace at one point, but that would have merited a warning, not a shoot-down.]

Here is the kicker. Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And the NATO charter’s article 5 declares that an attack on one member is an attack on all. NATO is duty-bound to defend Turkey if it is attacked and if it asks for help. Article 4 allows a country to call for consultations among the allies if it feels its territorial integrity is threatened.

Turkey is asking for help. It is asking that NATO be convened under Article 5 for only the second time in the organization’s history.

Aljazeera English reports from Antakya:

Turkish intelligence says that it has evidence that the Syrian military knew that the plane was Turkish, referring to it as “komsu,” the Turkish word for “neighbor.”

One can only speculate at Syrian motives. But Turkey has given refuge to large numbers of Syrian dissidents in its Hatay province near to Syria. Turkey and Syria had established good relations in the last decade, but the revolution and civil war have forced Turkey to take a stand. Ankara has sided with the revolutionaries, and called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are suspected of supplying the Syrian revolutionaries with rocket-propelled grenades and other war materiel that would allow them to take on the powerful Syrian military machine. Some observers believe that the RPGs and other weapons are being smuggled in from Turkey. And, such smuggling operations might need aerial support to make sure there aren’t Syrian troops along the smuggling route.

So the Syrians may have deliberately been sending Turkey a message, to back off.

It was a stupid move. As long a Syria did not engage in hostilities with other states in the region, it was teflon, since Russia and China were protecting it at the UN. But now that it has fired on a NATO plane, it has offered Turkey and its colleagues a legal way to use force.

I don’t think either Turkey or other NATO members will be at all happy to be drawn into military action in Syria. (Nor do I think that would be a good idea). But they might be drawn into creating a humanitarian corridor at Hatay in Turkey, and guarding it from Syrian attack.

By its unwise aggression against Turkey, Syria may have internationalized its civil war, something it and its allies had desperately been trying to avoid.

Moreover, if Turkey really does stop helping with electricity exports to Aleppo, that step could contribute to further discontent in one of the few major cities where protests have been muted and somewhat infrequent.

42 Responses

  1. Any chance that there might be any truth to the Syrian government’s assertion that the plane was in Syrian airspace at the time it was shot down?

  2. Dear Professor Cole

    “I don’t think either Turkey or other NATO members will be at all happy to be drawn into military action in Syria. (Nor do I think that would be a good idea).”

    I am glad you said that. For a moment I wondered if you approved of this nonsensical escalation. Dinging a recon aircraft that has been infringing your airspace while mapping your radar is cause for a diplomatic note, not for invoking article 5.

    We had rules of engagement in Germany precisely to avoid a small incident where a patrol or an aircraft got lost, escalating to World War III.

    An armoured divison that crosses your frontier triggers Article 5.

    You will recall that Turkey did not invoke Article 5 in response to the act of Piracy on the High Seas by the Israelis against their shipping a few years ago.

    Can we reputable and level headed commentators perhaps serve a greater good by maintaining a rational aproach to the problem

    • You’re fundamentally right IMHO. Still, tolerating relatively petty infringements is something a state cannot let itself become a habit. That its two different parties is irrelevant when the underlying issue of respect is at stake.

      With the NATO/WP this sort of thing had to been anticipated and could be kept in its proper place: here there is a more critical degree of messaging involved, both in the shooting and in the responses.

  3. I recall a dispute over water between the two nations back in the 80’s or 90’s in which Turkey simply massed its armies on the border until the Syrians relented. This might put a lot of pressure on the Syrians this time, too.

  4. Reports that (short range) anti-aircraft artillery was used make it unlikely that the shootdown was over international waters, though.

    • It was an RF-4E (recon variant) taking evasive action, darting in and out of Syrian airspace. Hard to justify this flight as defensive, or the shootdown a threat to a UN member state.

      • It wasn’t darting in and out of Syrian air space. It may have strayed once. Look at the map– that presumably happens all the time. Geez, do you always line up with the jackboots?

  5. Dear Professor Cole

    It seems that the storm in a teacup is rapidly dying down..

    link to

    “However, the Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, made it clear that the alliance was not considering a collective armed response. Following an emergency meeting in Brussels called by Turkey to discuss the downing of the Phantom F-4 aircraft, Rasmussen said the allies “expressed strong condemnation of this completely unacceptable act” but said the possibility of invoking article five of the North Atlantic Treaty, under which all allies intervene to defend against any attack on any member state, had not been discussed.

    “We stand together with Turkey in spirit of solidarity,” Rasmussen said. But when asked how Nato would respond if there was another such incident, the Nato secretary-general said only that the allies would once again “consult”, while remaining “seized of the situation”. He said he did not think there would be a repeat of the incident.

    Turkey said its jet had unintentionally strayed into Syrian airspace while on patrol but had been shot down over international waters.

    Turkish political observers say that the rare formal consultation with Nato allies (under article four, which has only been invoked once before, by Turkey in 2003) and Erdoğan’s heated rhetoric is designed for domestic public consumption, to compensate for the absence of any direct retaliation.

  6. There’s this expression, “loose cannon,” that every day has more meaning.

    Weapons increasingly flood the world, and it’s a myth that those who deploy and fire them are some kind of supermen and -women who follow orders (except for “bad” ones) and abide by the Law of War and all that crap. More and more of those weapons are on hair-triggers: they are “use-or-lose,” like ship-defense and -attack missiles and torpedoes, where the “horizon times” and thus moments available for perception and judgment are measured in minutes to seconds. More and more of them are under the “control” of young people, or of various kinds of ‘paths with axes to grind, fearful or tribal or revenge-motivated.

    In 1980 or so I was soaking in a large public bath, invoking the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, in a hotel in Beppu, Japan. Several US naval vessels (guided missile frigates and destroyers) were making a port call, at a time when the Japanese Constitution and politics were afire over the US refusal to even state an intention to abide by the US-imposed proscription on ANY nuclear weapons in the country. This was at a time when the US and Soviet Navies were playing bumper-tag and chest thumping and toe-stepping-on, all over that huge ocean area.

    So — three enthusiastic and culturally klutzy US naval officers high-fived their way into the bath area, skipped the obligatory pre-washing, and jumped in the heated pool where I was floating. Drawn to me as a fellow “gaijin,” I guess.

    We started chatting about this and that, and I had to ask whether there was any truth to the news that their ships were armed with nukes. “Of course!” was the quick reply. The Rooskies have ’em, we’d be fools not to. And two of them were “missile officers,” proud of holding the keys and delegated authority to launch nuke-headed missiles, on the apparent incoming approach of Commie missiles, at Commie ships manned by equally grimly fearfully political and enthusiastic Soviet officers with about the same weakness in the C-and-C chain, who might have fired off a few missiles, out of politics, or boredom, or drunkenness, or spite, or just a spastic response to some little glitch in the situation-reporting radar and equipment. Short “horizon times,” y’know.

    And don’t respond that that is all Tom Clancy stuff. Shot down any Iranian airliners, recently? link to

    Talking in terms of “Syria” (or some war-loving little band in Syrian uniforms) shooting down a “Turkey” bird kind of misses the point, obscuring what’s happening and what’s happened at the “tactical” level as a result of decades of building long chains of dominoes, stood on end on a shaky old table that itself is balanced on a house of cards… just waiting for some brat or some klutz to bump the table, or a random gust to jiggle one of those cards…

    So very hard to keep the genie in the bottle, with so many curious or foolish or ill-willed people playing with the cork. So impossible to cram him back in, once he gets a toe free.

    • That was my reaction, too: some 21-year-old Syrian private asked his 24-year-old shift supervisor what he’s supposed to do when some 25-year-old Turkish pilot strayed off course.

      • Turkish signals intel is that the Syrian military knew exactly what they were doing.

    • Adding onto your point, when you pack more and more combustable elements into a small space, the potentials of something unforeseen happen go up geometrically, if not faster. This business was hardly foreseen but something like it was becoming inevitable.

      “We” need to ratchet-down the concentration of combustable elements or a chain-reaction will result. The Syrian regime actually will be drawn to provoking such an external crisis the more its internal prerogatives slip away, as a way of uniting the People. Israel is the best option to fill that role, but in a pinch they’ll pretty much have to look to Turkey.

      “Our” best interests lie in letting the Syrians sort this thing out for itself. To support that policy, appropriate strategies and tactics can be deployed. One would be to avoid putting planes in a position of getting shot at by trigger-happy, OR state-empowered AA artillerymen.

  7. “It is asking that NATO be convened under Article 5…”

    Really? The only source that I can find saying that Turkey has actually inviked Article 5 is an unreliable blog (not this one, which I consider reliable). Several sources say that Turkey is considering or “has mentioned” Article 5, and quite a few say it has asked for consultation under Article 4, but Radio Free Europe cites NATO itself this morning to say specifically that Turkey has not invoked Article 5.

  8. Turkey ponied up war ships to help with the Libya operation, despite not being terribly enthusiastic about it, in response to the calls of its NATO allies.

    They’ve definitely got a favor to call in. I don’t see how the U.K., France, U.S. and the rest of NATO can, in good conscience, ignore Turkey’s call for help here.

    • I can. As long as it´s not clear at all who brought in this provocation and why, everyone should and will stay put. Good thing we´ve learned a couple of things since Kaiser Wilhelm.

      • Syria ain’t the Triple Entente, and for the North Atlantic countries to tell their ally that they suddenly “learned” that there’s no need to take alliances seriously, but only after the operation in which Turkey held up its end of the alliance, does not strike me as a particularly “good thing.”

        • Situation´s still got a faint taste of Agadir to me.

          And Syria is not just Syria but also Iran and Russia (and China).

          And what I dislike the most about the whole story is the constant bickering going on at the borders between Turkey and its two neighbors, Syria and Iran. If either party tells us half of what this actually is about, we´re lucky. Have you kept track how many times Turkey threatened to cut off Syria from either electricity or Euphrates water? Do you know how many times they´ve been chasing Kurdish people to and fro (respectively how many times they eloped to Syria)? How active a role Turkey played for decades in supporting Syrian “opposition fighters” less because they felt sorry for any Syrians suffering injustice but rather out of pure vengeance and Schadenfreude?

        • Situation´s still got a faint taste of Agadir to me.

          That’s always a reasonable concern, certainly something to watch out for.

          If Turkey were to try to bootstrap this incident into, say, NATO backing for a major ground incursion that, hey look at that, just happens to involve a parcel of land that Turkey has been eying enviously for decades, I doubt the leadership of NATO would go along with it.

          However, I haven’t seen any evidence that they are doing so.

  9. Every news report I have read said that the NATO meeting was called under article 4 , not article 5. Is this correct?

  10. “[U]nwise aggression against Turkey” sounds like a Fox News-ism.

    Aggression carries a connotation of intention to dominate or master. Violating Syrian airspace, flying at a low altitude at high speed to avoid detection . . . was the Syrian state engaged in deliberate aggression, or are we talking about the response of field personnel in a “hot” tactical situation? And Turkey is harboring and aiding in the supply of anti-Assad forces . . . nothing aggressive going on here?

    If the Israelis shot down a plane violating its airspace at a low altitude run, would that be “unwise aggression” as well?

    • The plane wasn’t in Syrian airspace when shot down. Turkey and Syria are not in a state of hostilities, or hadn’t been, so just blowing the plane away was unusual.

      • Where the plane was impacted is not necessarily material. Depending upon the defensive weaponry involved, it is quite possible the plane was in Syrian airspace at the time the weaponry was fired, the plane took evasive action in a direction out of the airspace, the impact occurred thereafter (evasion failing), and the plane travelled on to hit clearly international waters.

        But my point was that a lower level field commander acting in a “second count” tense situation to defend his country should not be confused with deliberate aggression.

  11. Geez, shooting down one warplane over international waters is hardy grounds for war. I remember the US shooting down a civilian Italian airliner a few decades ago over the Mediterranean, the KAL flight that strayed into Russia, etc., far worse in my book of provocations. I guess Ergogan has to talk tough to placate his fire-breathing military establishment.

    • I bet you mean “Iranian” airliner. Another example of how the idiocy of “our” entire current course of human conduct, our “policies” and “interests” and “our” geometrically tumescent “abilities to threaten and project power” and all that other Great Game/Game of RISK! bullshiptery is skating all of us, especially those of us who pay for all this but have zero say-so in how it all goes down, quickly along to the Great (END) Game of our species.

      Note the features of the Wiki report on the “shootdown” of Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 very surprised people: young, dumb, scared, inexperienced “troops” in several levels of “tight space,” compressed by geography and time and the expectations of a rather hard-ass bunch of officers, literally working “in the dark,” struggling to make sense of a flood of information of a volume that was minute, compared to the bitstorm that flies at them in “our” wonderful new Networked Battlespace, where “we” add data dumps and “features” because “we” can and because they are “really cool.” And of course profitable.

      One little radar operator, convinced the flight profile and signature were clearly from a CIVILIAN target but unable to correlate and parse the hour’s difference between “bridge time” and “civilian time” the civil airline schedules were printed in, the pressure that comes from having to assume everything seemingly “inbound” is a deadly threat, so off go a YAHOOO!! couple of Standard missiles that blew the Enemy Arabs out of the sky. Was there cheering in the Vincennes’ CIC when the blip vaporized? Gee, I wonder…

      For that, as with a few of the more notorious present “bug-splat booboos” in the current Forever War Follies, “we” ended up paying blood money, to the tune of a mere $132 million. For an “action” that despite everything that was done wrong, despite the loss and waste of our supposed values, still resulted in the “award” of medals to those gallant sailors:

      The men of the Vincennes were all awarded Combat Action Ribbons for completion of their tours in a combat zone. Lustig, the air-warfare coordinator, received the Navy Commendation Medal, often given for acts of heroism or meritorious service, but a not-uncommon end-of-tour medal for a second tour division officer. According to the History Channel, the medal citation noted his ability to “quickly and precisely complete the firing procedure.”[2] However, in 1990, The Washington Post listed Lustig’s awards as one being for his entire tour from 1984 to 1988 and the other for his actions relating to the surface engagement with Iranian gunboats. In 1990, Rogers was awarded the Legion of Merit “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer … from April 1987 to May 1989.” The award was given for his service as the Commanding Officer of the Vincennes, and the citation made no mention of the downing of Iran Air 655.[34] The Legion of Merit is often awarded to high-ranking officers upon successful completion of especially difficult duty assignments and/or last tours of duty before retirement.

      And gee, do you suppose that any of this resulted in any kind of disciplinary or corrective action? Combat Information Centers on today’s Navy ships are still full of bugs, with contractors chasing them while trying to lay off blame for malfunctions on the products of their competitors…

      “Italian airliner” sounds so much less disconcerting, almost comforting, if totally inaccurate. Why is that?

  12. In the first few months of George W. Bush’s presidency, the Chinese intercepted and forced a US plane to land, claiming it had crossed into Chinese territory. At first Bush issued furious comments as if China had shot it down! It was turning into an incident. Cooler heads (maybe sent from his father’s administration) prevailed, the rhetoric stopped and a week later the Americans were home.

    Lesson? The Chinese knew just how far to push. THe Syrians didn’t.

  13. As the Athenians told the Melians (according to Thucydides), none of these arguments may really matter. The powerful can get their way by distorting international law any way they want to, as almost nobody understands it. But you are wrong about the provisions of international law applicable here. Punishing a state for something it already has done comes under the rubric of reprisals, not self-defense. Use of military force as reprisals short of war used to be permissible under limited circumstances (including the rule of proportionality and an attempt to seek redress, as articulated in a case involving Germany and Portugal in 1914, later arbitrated). Self-defense is defined as an “inherent right” but is defined very narrowly. It is the only exception to the ban on force in international relations in the UN Charter (other than actions taken by the Security Council). And long before the UN Charter it was circumscribed by the rule stated by Daniel Webster (and invoked by the Nurembeg Tribunal)
    limiting it to situations in which the danger is
    “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” If Turkey is intervening forcibly in Syrian affairs, it might be easier to justify the shooting down of the Turkish airplane on grounds of self-defense than the other way around, although various facts and rules would need to be considered before reaching such a conclusion.

    • It was shot down over international waters; they’ve located the wreck.

      I’ll bet when you go to horror movies you root for the serial killer.

  14. I’m amazed how successful national leaders cannot resist their megalomaniac urges and let themselves be drawn into foreign adventures. Erdogan had a great thing going, an assured legacy. Now he seems to have become enthralled with the notion of a self-destructive quagmire in Syria. What gives?

    Reminds me of Britain’s Tony B-Liar, Bush 43 (Iraq) and Obama (Afghanistan).

  15. Just heard some bluster from Turkey about this being “unacceptable,” given the need to defend their territory. This has GOT to blow over.

    It was shot down over international waters indisputably, and whatever issues exist, infringement of Turkish airspace is not at issue:

    link to

  16. Guys,

    Are you frigging paying attention at all!!!???? The Turkish plane was shot down in international waters. If they were trying to send a message, it was the wrong one to transmit. As Juan suggests, now the door is open to a Turkish/NATO reaction. I don’t think either NATO or Turkey is interested in getting involved in full scale hostilities. But, as we’ve seen from earlier reporters, Turkey can press several pressure points – not the least being the supply of arms & material to the ant-Assad forces.

    The regime is trying to kill its way out of this. It may have worked for Dad but that was 1982 and this is 2012. Ultimately, this group of thugs will get overthrown.

  17. “It was shot down over international waters; they’ve located the wreck.”

    Yes, in Syrian waters :D

    link to

    It’s not about taking sides, but Turkish version of the story 1) changed many times from Friday to Sunday.
    2) is full of holes

      • For example, a small problem with Davutoglu’s account of events is that several TVs in Turkey broadcasted on Saturday eyewitness reporting seeing pair of jets flying low over sea, and return of one, some time later.

        Story about second jet, allegedly going to look for the first one and was allegedly shoot at, was launched by Bulent Arinc on Sunday evening. Don’t you find strange there was no mention of it during previous 48 hours?

        “And Turkish radar tracked the plane’s last movements, over international waters.”

        That’s what Turkey’s officials are saying now, it was not version in circulation until Davutoglu’s appearance on TV on Sunday.

        Impression I get from here (Turkey) is that it was a stupid accident and that it took Turkey’s officials almost 48 hours to decide (consulting intensively behind the curtain) what to do with it. Than they decided it was “an act of war”, and constructed story accordingly.

  18. Above Hurriyet Daily link didn’t work.

    Here’s my cut n’ paste version. link to

    It says Art 5 was not pursued, and the plane was in Syrian airspace 5 minutes but had been well clear of it when shot at (a missile?). Other places I read this sort of airspace clipping with all the various islands was not uncommon.

    Think it needs to be considered that Syria may well be actively looking to provoke Turkey. I’d be willing to hypothesize Israel is keeping well away from where it could be used by al-assad to consolidate the people against some external foreign threat, in which case with Turkey they may be simply making do…

  19. I think Juan’s comments are insightful. I just can’t help but think back to the Sledgehammer plot where a fighter jet was to deliberately violate Greek airspace in order to be shot down and call a diplomatic incident.

  20. Its seems obvious to me that NATO was checking was anyone at home, the answer was a resounding yes. Wonder though what made them think they should be checking this route into Syria. Turkey feeling the Bear nearby. This also another visible sign of the horrible trajedy that the Sykes-Pichot agreement brought to middle east. These flawed borders are being redrawn bit by bit.

  21. If the plane was in International waters when shot down, it would have to be at least 12 nautical miles (22 km) from the Syrian coast. Given the total failure of Iraq and Libya to shoot down Nato airplanes even when hundreds of missions crossed their coast, how were the Syrians able to down a NATO fighter capable of Mach 2.2 at a range well over 20 km?

    • Syria’s air defenses are quite a bit better than either Iraq’s circa 2002 or Libya’s. Iraq had been under severe military sanctions, and had had its air defense system degraded by bombing, for a decade when the war broke out. Libya was isolated and unloved, and didn’t have a particularly impressive arsenal.

      Whereas Syria is a Russian client state, with reasonably-effective air defenses.

      In addition, the US in 2003 and NATO in 2011 weren’t using F-4s.

  22. There was a time when paying the salaries of armed rebels & terrorists, letting them operate from your territory, sending planes over another country’s territory, and enforcing an economic siege were considered acts of hostility. Nowadays, it depends on who’s doing it. The “Friends of Syria” can do no wrong, and Syria’s government can do nothing right. Syria’s shooting down of the intruding Turkish plane is brazen and outrageous according to Hilary Clinton, but Turkey’s acts of war and sabotage against Syria are of no consequence.

Comments are closed.