In a sign that the 16-month uprising in Syria is spreading to other parts of the region, Turkey has scrambled six F-16 fighter jets near the 4.5 mile border it shares with Syria. On June 22, Syria downed a Turkish F-4 Phantom jet whose pilots are still missing. Syria has insisted that the jet had strayed into its airspace and was shot down by air defense fire while Turkey says the plane briefly entered, then exited, Syrian airspace and was downed by a missile.
Last week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey has changed its rules of military engagement and will consider any Syrian military approaching its border as a threat. Turkey has also invoked Article 4 of Nato’s founding treaty, according to which any member state can request consultations if it believes its security is threatened. Nato has also voiced strong support for Turkey.
The border incident has certainly strained relations between the countries even further. Turkey, which has seen at least 30,000 Syria refugees pour into it, has condemned the bloody response of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to the uprising. The potential spread of unrest to Turkey is the sort of conflict that Kofi Annan, special envoy to the United Nations, said could erupt if the violence is not stopped.
Annan made these warnings while addressing a Saturday meeting of the “Action Group” nine nations in Geneva that was intended to figure out a plan to end the bloodshed in Syria. The group agreed to a plan for a political transition but there was no consensus about requiring the ouster of Assad. In a too familiar pattern, Russia and China blocked any such calls.
The Action Group includes the five permanent Security Council members and four Middle Eastern countries. The possibility of demanding that Assad be removed had been considered, as indicated by a request to exclude those “whose participation would jeopardize stability and reconciliation” from a unity government. This language was dropped from the final agreement at the insistance of Russia, Syria’s ally since the Cold War.
US Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton said that the omission would not matter in the end as “Assad will still have to go. He will never pass the mutual-consent test given the blood on his hands.” The UK and French foreign ministers both said that the Geneva talks means that Assad is “finished.”
But opposition groups including the Local Coordination Committee (LCC) were highly dismissive of the communiqué resulting from the talks, which they described as “ambiguous” and a “waste of time.” LCC spokesman Rafif Jouejati said that “the Action Group on Syria just gave Assad license to kill for another year.” Veteran Syrian opposition figure, Haitham Maleh proclaimed that “It is a catastrophe, the country has been destroyed, and they want us then to sit with the killer?”, asserting that the plan will have “no value on the ground.”
Annan, seeking to put what the New York Times called the “best possible spin” on the talks said that “it is for the people of Syria to come to a political agreement.” But Aaron David Miller, a Wilson Center scholar and a former Mideast negotiator for the American government, was blunt in his criticism:
“This was the coalition of the uncooperative, the disabled and the unwilling. There simply is no willingness and no capacity among the so-called great powers to intercede in the Syrian conflict.
“The revised Kofi Annan plan is doomed.”
“Massacres have become like breakfast to us,” LCC activist Imad Hosary said.
The LCC estimate the death toll on Saturday to be 100. A police complex in Damascus was struck by a bomb, marking the fourth time that insurgents have struck the capital. The Syrian army shelled Douma, a Sunni Muslim suburb northeast of Damascus’ center, and has reportedly recaptured it after shelling the area for over a week. In another Damascus suburb, Zamalka, a car bomb killed 20 to 50 at a funeral for an activist, Abdul Hadi al-Halabi.
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Photo of Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey by FreedomHouse2