NATO allies, including Canada, condemned "in the strongest terms" the Syrian shooting down of a Turkish warplane, calling it "completely unacceptable."
But the 28-nation alliance after an emergency meeting in Brussels Tuesday opted only to voice "solidarity" with Turkey rather than making any powerful symbolic gesture, such as deploying one or more of the alliance's command-and-control aircrafts to Turkey.
Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking Tuesday after alliance ambassadors met at NATO's headquarters, said the allies regarded the shooting down of a Turkish F4-Phanton by Syria last Friday "to be unacceptable and condemned it in the strongest terms."
Mr. Rasmussen said alliance nations "stand together with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity."
He confirmed there had been no discussion of NATO's Article 5 – under which the world's most powerful military alliance can deem an attack on any one member as an act of war against all of them and thus trigger joint military response.
The emergency meeting, convened under Article 4 – which any NATO nation can use if it feels threatened – was only the second time a NATO nation has invoked the procedure. In 2003, Turkey also called for an Article 4 meeting in advance of the Iraq war.
The NATO response – tough talk but nothing beyond that – reflects the reality that there is neither the interest, nor the mandate to intervene militarily in Syria's worsening civil war.
Meanwhile, the trickle of high-ranking defections continued as senior Syrian officials abandoned President Bashar al-Assad's increasingly brutal effort to crush a 16-month uprising, suggesting inner-core support for the regime was fraying.
Turkey, which admitted its warplane "strayed" into Syrian air space, vowed the shootdown would "not go unpunished." But key NATO nations made clear in advance of the meeting that their priority was to defuse tensions rather than threaten a military response.
"Military intervention in Syria is out of the question," Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said. Under NATO's charter, the alliance must work by consensus, meaning any single member can block joint action.
On Monday, Turkey claimed Syrian gunners had also opened fire on a lumbering search-and-rescue aircraft looking for the two missing pilots from the aging U.S.-built F4-Phantom fighter-bomber shot down Friday.
Syria and Turkey offered wildly different and mutually irreconcilable accounts of the shootdown. "The Syrians intentionally shot down our plane in international air space," Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Monday. It "was hit by a heat-seeking, laser-guided missile." But he added: "We have no intention of going at war with anyone."
Syria's improbable version was that the Turkish Phantom was "flying at 100 metres altitude and about one or two kilometres from the Syrian coast," and was downed by an "anti-aircraft machine gun which has a maximum range of 2.5 kilometres." That claim may be easily disproved by Turkish radar tracks, which will be shown to NATO ambassadors.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said he wanted a "decisive" response from his NATO allies but has so far avoided threatening military retaliation against Syria. Relations between the two neighbours have spiralled steadily downward over the past 16 months as Turkey has provided refuge to tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the worsening violence.
Mr. Erdogan said any Syrian aircraft, ship or army unit approaching the Turkish frontier would be treated as a threat and attacked.
The prime minister has sought to sound resolved while avoiding any direct military retaliation in the wake of the shooting down of the Phantom, which given its flight profile, was likely conducting a clandestine reconnaissance patrol off Syria's coast.
"Everybody should know that Turkey's wrath is just as strong and devastating," Mr. Erdogan said Tuesday in a speech to parliament.
Syrian military units approaching Turkey "will be assessed as a military threat and will be treated as a military target," he said.
Turkey also threatened Monday to slash electricity exports to Syria, which depends on Turkey for nearly 10 per cent of its already stretched and war-damaged power grid.
In its Tuesday statement of condemnation, NATO also called the shooting down of the Turkish warplane, "another example of the Syrian authorities' disregard for international norms, peace and security, and human life."
The two-man Turkish air crew, a pilot and a systems officer, are missing and presumed dead.
With no Security Council mandate, no call for intervention from the Arab League, grave concerns that the opposition may include radical Islamists, and a much more complex neighbourhood including Israel and Iran, the risks of igniting a wider war have dampened Western interest in helping topple the Assad regime.
It may be cracking anyway.
At least one Syrian general and several colonels, along with scores of lower-ranking military and their families, reportedly fled across the Turkish border over the weekend. Last week, with greater drama, Colonel Hassan Hamada, a Syrian air force pilot, flew his aging, Soviet-era MiG warplane to an air base in neighbouring Jordan – a high-visibility defection that attracted widespread international attention and an angry denunciation from Damascus.
It is now estimated that thousands of Syrian military personnel have defected but, until recently, only a handful of high-ranking officers have abandoned the Assad regime. Just as defections among senior military personnel and, eventually, large-scale side-switching was crucial in tipping the military balance against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi last summer, the loss of military cohesion, leadership and the wider impact on morale and discipline could undermine Mr. al-Assad's effort to crush rebel forces.