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NATO rejects intervention in Turkey-Syria fracas over shootdown

A picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen outside Homs.

KHALED AL-HARIRI/REUTERS

As Syria and Turkey escalated their war of words, NATO nations were to gather in emergency session Tuesday to show solidarity with Ankara even as the world's most powerful military alliance made clear it has no interest, and no mandate, to intervene 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.

NATO sources suggested the allies, including Canada, would issue a strongly worded joint statement condemning Syria and – perhaps – deploy several powerfully symbolic, but unarmed, command-and-control aircraft to Turkey as a demonstration of solidarity and resolve that would result from Tuesday's emergency meeting. The planes are manned by multinational crews.

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Talking tough in advance of the North Atlantic Council meeting in Brussels, a Syrian government spokesman warned any NATO military response to Friday's shooting down of a Turkish fighter-bomber would be fought off by Syria's military.

"If the goal of the meeting is aggression, we say that Syrian air space, territory and waters are sacred," Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi warned in Damascus.

Turkey, which admitted its warplane "strayed" into Syrian air space, vowed the shootdown would "not go unpunished." But key NATO nations were already making clear their priority was to defuse tensions rather than threatening 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.

Although NATO could invoke its fundamental Article 5 – which treats an attack on any one member as an act of war against all 28 nations – Tuesday's conclave was called under Article 4, which allows any member to call an emergency meeting if it feels threatened. Only once, after the Sept 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks, has NATO invoked Article 5.

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."

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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.

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 Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird accused Syria of an "aggressive and unjustified attack against a clearly marked Turkish aircraft." The Harper government embraced a NATO role in the Libyan war last year, sending CF-18 fighter-bombers and a warship, and backing the appointment of a Canadian general to command NATO forces. It has shown no interest in a similar involvement in Syria.

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.

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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.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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