Reinforcements sent to border as Turkey debates response to Syria

Turkey deploys anti-aircraft guns and other weapons at the Turkish-Syrian border as tensions continue to escalate following the downing of an unarmed Turkish RF-4E jet by Syria over the Mediterranean. (Photo: Cihan)
The military has sent anti-aircraft guns and other weapons to the Syrian border as top leaders and military commanders met for talks to discuss the nation’s response after a Turkish military jet was downed by Syria last week.

The meeting of the Turkey’s highest national security body, the National Security Council (MGK), on Thursday, was chaired by President Abdullah Gül and attended by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel. The meeting came amid escalating tensions with Turkey’s southern neighbor after an RF-4E Phantom, an unarmed reconnaissance version of the F-4 fighter jet, was shot down by Syria in the Mediterranean on Friday while on a solo mission to test domestic radar systems, Ankara said.

Syria described the shooting down of the Turkish jet as an act of self-defense, while Turkey, though saying the incident would “not go unpunished,” emphasized that it does not intend to go to war with Syria. Prime Minister Erdo?an said on Tuesday that the Turkish military have been given instructions to treat any approaching Syrian military unit as a threat.
A Turkish military convoy of vehicles, including anti-aircraft missile launchers from the 5th Mechanized Armored Brigade, left a base in the southeastern city of Gaziantep and traveled to neighboring Kilis province, home to Syrian refugee camps, on the border. The preponderance of air defense weapons in the convoy suggests Turkey is preparing for any possible approach by Syrian helicopters or warplanes.

Within the same day, another convoy of military trucks, towing anti-aircraft guns, also entered into a military outpost in the border village of Güveççi, which faces a Syrian military outpost across the border and where Syrian forces and opposition fighters have clashed in recent months.

Reports said that another large truck carrying an anti-aircraft gun left ?skenderun on Thursday for the border area, escorted by two army lorries, one carrying 10 troops.

Last Wednesday, a convoy of about 30 military vehicles, including trucks loaded with missile batteries, self-propelled multiple rocket launchers, anti-aircraft artillery and military ambulances, arrived in the coastal town of Iskenderun in Hatay province, headed for the Syrian border 50 kilometers (30 miles) away. The Hatay region is sheltering over 33,000 refugees as well as elements of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA). Armored military vehicles were reportedly being transported to military installations in ?anl?urfa, in the middle of Turkey’s border with Syria and Hatay, a panhandle province that juts down into Syria.

Specific details of the new rules of engagement issued to troops after the shooting down of the warplane, which Turkey says was in international air space but Syria says entered its territory at high speed, have not been made public.

A Turkish official speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity said that Turkey was deploying troops along its border with Syria after the jet incident took place. “I can confirm there are troops being deployed along the border in Hatay province. Turkey is taking precautions after its jet was shot down,” the official said.

He said he did not know how many troops or vehicles were being moved but said several military vehicles were being stationed in the military garrison of Yaylada?? and the Alt?nozu and Reyhanl? border areas of Turkey’s southern Hatay province. He said anti-aircraft guns were being stationed along the border. He could not confirm media reports of troop movements further east along the border in the Turkish provinces of Gaziantep and ?anl?urfa.

Meanwhile, Erdo?an said on Wednesday that Turkey had no intention of attacking anyone, but will “teach those who dare to test the limits of its might,” as he introduced Turkey’s first domestically produced training jet to the public in a show of the nation’s increasing defense capacity. Erdo?an reacted strongly to Syria’s shooting down of the jet and warned Damascus in a speech on Tuesday that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) has been given instructions to treat any approaching Syrian military unit as a threat.

He said that Turkey will no longer tolerate security threats from Syria along its border, further escalating tensions. “The rules of engagement for the TSK have changed,” Erdo?an said. “Any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria by posing a security risk and danger will be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target.”

Noting that the attack has resulted in a new phase in Turkish-Syrian relations, Erdo?an said it is now apparent “[Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad’s regime has become a clear and present danger to Turkey’s security.” Ankara has long been saying that the Assad regime, facing a 16-month-long uprising, has been massacring its own people and that it has lost legitimacy, and insists that Assad should leave power. But in remarks following the jet crisis, Turkish officials have also rejected “warmongering,” saying Turkey will be measured in its response.

Syria, on the other hand, said the plane’s Turkish identity was not known before the shooting and that the plane was flying fast and at a low altitude and well within the Syrian airspace when it was hit. A Syrian official, Information Minister Omran al-Zoebi, has said his country’s forces may have mistaken the Turkish plane they shot down for an Israeli one. He was quoted as telling Turkish news channel A Haber in a telephone interview on Wednesday that Turkish and Israeli fighter jets were mostly US-made, which may have led the Syrian forces to mistake it for an Israeli jet. He said his country did “not want a crisis between Turkey and Syria.”

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