BEIRUT — Bolstered by a declaration of support from NATO, Turkey warned Syria on Tuesday that it would retaliate if Syrian forces approach its southern border, signaling a significant escalation of tensions between the two neighbors following the downing of a Turkish jet.
The warning coincided with a strong condemnation of Syria by NATO, which weighed into the Syria crisis for the first time with a statement calling the attack on the plane “unacceptable” and stressing that the alliance stands with Turkey “in the spirit of strong solidarity.”
The Turkish threat, along with NATO’s unequivocal declaration of support, raised the risk of a confrontation along the 550-mile Turkish-Syrian border, which is already a focus of Syrian efforts to crush the 15-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. Large swaths of the border region have fallen under rebel control and Syria routinely launches attacks in the area.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a strongly worded speech to parliamentarians in Ankara that “any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria, posing a security risk or danger, will be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target.”
“This incident shows that Syria has become an open threat to Turkey and so we have come to a brand-new stage,” he said.
Hours after he spoke, Turkish media reported that tanks and other heavy military equipment had been dispatched to the Syrian border area from a base in southeastern Turkey.
Erdogan made it clear that Turkey plans no immediate military retaliation for the downing of the jet. But by changing its rules of engagement along the border, Ankara is putting Syria on notice that it can no longer operate there with impunity. The action could curb Syria’s capacity to hunt down rebels in the northern province of Idlib, regarded as one of their strongholds.
Smuggling routes between Turkey and Syria are used by the Free Syrian Army, based in a refugee camp in southern Turkey, to secure supplies of weaponry and money. The cross-border flow of rebels and refugees is one of the many sources of friction between Ankara and Damascus.
There have been several instances in recent months in which Syrian troops have fired into Turkey to target fleeing refugees or rebels, and Syrian helicopters have strayed into Turkish territory at least five times, Erdogan said.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad countered the comments with a defiant speech in which he declared that Syria is “in a state of real war.”