ANKARA/BEIRUT: NATO ambassadors will discuss this week whether to respond to Syria’s downing of a Turkish jet in what Ankara insists was international airspace, although the likelihood of military action by the alliance is low. The plane’s downing has further hiked regional tensions over the conflict in Syria, where at least 63 people were said to have died Sunday in clashes between rebels and regime forces.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharply criticized Syria Sunday for downing the Turkish plane, an act Turkey called an “open and grave violation of international law” that would justify retaliation.
“The United States condemns this brazen and unacceptable act in the strongest possible terms,” Clinton said in Washington. “It is yet another reflection of the Syrian authorities’ callous disregard for international norms, human life, and peace and security.”
Clinton said Washington would maintain close contact with Turkish officials as they determine their response, including via the U.N. Security Council. “We will work with Turkey and other partners to hold the Assad regime accountable,” she said.
The jet’s wreckage was found in the Mediterranean at a depth of 1,300 meters, Turkish media reported Sunday. The two pilots remain unaccounted for.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the jet had been on a training flight to test Turkey’s radar capabilities, not spying on Syria. He said the plane had mistakenly strayed into Syrian airspace Friday, but was quickly warned to leave by Turkish authorities and was 1.5 kilometers inside international airspace when it was shot down off the coast of Lattakia.
Syria insisted Saturday that the shooting was “not an attack” and that the aircraft had violated its airspace. But Turkish authorities say Syria didn’t warn the Turkish plane nor send its own jets to confront it. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was expected to make a statement Tuesday and might announce some retaliatory steps.
“No one should dare to test Turkey’s capabilities,” Davutoglu said Sunday.
Meanwhile, at the request of Turkey, NATO’s governing body will meet Tuesday to discuss the incident, said Oana Lungescu, a NATO spokeswoman. The consultations were called under article 4 of NATO’s founding Washington Treaty.
“Under article 4, any ally can request consultations whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened,” Lungescu said. The North Atlantic Council will decide whether to respond, she said.
Despite some opposition leaders’ calls for Western military intervention in Syria, the U.S. and allies have been hesitant to get involved in what could prove a protracted conflict, preferring the diplomatic route. It’s unlikely the downing of the Turkish plane will change those calculations.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Sunday he was “gravely concerned by the Syrian regime’s action in shooting down” the plane.
“This outrageous act underlines how far beyond accepted behavior the Syrian regime has put itself, and I condemn it wholeheartedly,” Hague added.
“The Assad regime should not make the mistake of believing it can act with impunity. It will be held to account for its behavior.”
Italy’s foreign minister decried the shooting down of the plane as “a further, very grave and unacceptable action by the Assad regime.” Giulio Terzi promised that Italy would play an active role in the NATO meeting Tuesday.
Syrian activists reported violence in different parts of the country Sunday, saying at least 72 people were killed, including 36 civilians, 27 soldiers and nine rebels.
The deadliest incident was in the northern town of Ariha where a shell hit a home, killing seven members of the same family, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. A video posted online showed the seven men’s bodies, some badly mutilated. Activists also reported intense shelling and clashes between rebels and troops in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor and the central city of Homs, which has been under a government attack for the past two weeks.
Earlier Sunday, activists said rebels captured a military base in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, confiscating large amounts of ammunition. The Observatory said 16 government troops died in the attacks on the base near the rebel-held town of Daret Azzeh and nearby checkpoints early Sunday.
Also Sunday, Syrian opposition groups met in Brussels to hash out differences and plan for a democratic transition. The disparate groups are split on whether outside military intervention will help and whether to engage in dialogue with Assad’s regime. The conference, attended by some 50 people, will continue Monday.
In what Syria sees as a reform move, Assad announced the formation of a new government Saturday under Prime Minister Riyad Hijab. Despite giving two portfolios to self-claimed opposition figures Qadri Jameel and Ali Haidar, Assad kept key ministers in place: Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, along with the defense and interior ministers, Daoud Rajha and Mohammad al-Shaar.
Jameel and Haidar describe themselves as “internal opposition,” but other groups have derided them as fake opposition that is aligned with the regime.
Meanwhile, Jordanian Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah said Sunday that three other Syrian pilots had defected last week, even before a pilot flew his warplane into neighboring Jordan. He said the other three crossed overland into Jordan. He was unsure whether the four pilots knew each other or had coordinated their escape from Syria.