NATO has promised to back Ankara in its escalating conflict with Syria, as Turkey adds 25 new F-16 fighter jets to its border protection force. It follows days of retaliation from Turkey after Syrian shells started coming over the border last month.
“We have all the necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told journalists before a defense ministers meeting in Brussels.
Meanwhile, Turkish news agencies report that 25 F-16 jet fighters have arrived at the Diyarbakir base, 100 kilometers from the Syrian border. Local officials say the aircraft have been designated for operations in Kurdistan, the nearby zone of a long-simmering separatist conflict.
A separate convoy of armed vehicles and transports carrying tanks arrived at another border town.
Turkey has endorsed the uprising against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad for the past 18 months, providing logistics, funding and safe havens for rebels on its side of the 900-kilometer border.
But the antagonism ratcheted up last month when artillery shells fired from inside Syria hit Turkish border towns for several consecutive days. Five civilians were killed in one strike last Wednesday.
Turkey has since replied with barrages of its own.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has secured support from parliament to conduct “hot pursuit” missions that could cross into Syrian territory.
“From now on, every attack on us will be responded to immediately. Every attack that targets our sovereignty, our security of life and property will find its response,” said Turkish government spokesman Bulent Arinc.
Turkey enjoys a sizable advantage over its neighbor both in terms of troop numbers and military technology.
With nearly one million troops and 400 war planes, Turkey has the second-largest army and third biggest air force in NATO.
Syria has a nominal army three times smaller, which has been exhausted by more than a year of constant fighting, and a fleet of relatively outdated Russian planes.
But Rasmussen urged both sides not to blow up the face-off into a full-scale conflict.
“We hope that all parties involved will show restraint, and avoid an escalation of the crisis. I do believe that the right way forward in Syria is a political solution.”
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded that Assad take the first step in ending the civil war.
“It is unbearable for the Syrian people to continue like this. That is why I have conveyed to the Syrian government a strong message that they should immediately declare a unilateral ceasefire,” he said during a press conference in Paris.
The UN estimates that over 20,000 Syrians have been killed and 700,000 made refugees during the conflict