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PV Vivekanand: Nato studies its Syria options
June 26, 2012
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Today’s meeting of the North Atlantic Council on Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish plane could turn out to be a turning point in the international approach towards ending the Damascus regime’s 15-month-old violent crackdown on dissent.

Ankara requested the meeting of the council, which is made up of ambassadors of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) member countries, saying the F-4 Phantom jet was shot down after it was warned by Syrian authorities to leave and was more than 1.5 kilometres into international air space.

Syria, which says it did now know that the aircraft belonged to Turkey, insists its air defences downed the aircraft while in Syrian airspace.

It does not really matter where the plane was shot down because the Western alliance is known to be seeking an opportunity to argue for a reason for military intervention in Syria.

Turkey has also disclosed that a rescue plane searching for the Phantom-4 plane was itself placed in the crosshairs by the Syrian air defences but not shot at.

The Casa CN-235, a twin-propellor transport, is equipped with a system that warns the pilots when the plane is targeted.

Ankara’s request for today’s meeting is based on Article 4 of the Nato statue, which provides for meetings “after a member is attacked.” It opted not to invoke Article 5, which says that “an armed attack” against one or more of Nato members in Europe or North America “shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations... including the use of armed force.”

Obviously, Turkey realised that it will be hard to claim that the downing of a single military plane after a territorial violation constituted a serious threat to the country’s territorial integrity.

But the Nato council’s meeting could be starting point for a concerted push for Nato military intervention in Syria with a view to bringing about regime change in Damascus. The gathering could issue a strong rebuke to Syria and demand that it refrain from similar action in the future. No doubt, Damascus will scoff at the rebuke, which could be followed by a provocation that would draw Syrian action. In turn, the Western alliance could go for a strong warning and then follow it up with military intervention after provoking Damascus with another incident.

Thus goes thinking among experts familiar with the situation.

Of course, it could not be overlooked that any decision by the North Atlantic Council should be approved by consensus. All members should agree. It is as yet unclear whether there is any serious difference among the member states that could prevent a rebuke to Syria.

The European Union (EU) appeared to have set the pattern for Nato council action on Monday by condemning Syria, but saying that the bloc will not support military intervention in the country.

The European bloc also tightened sanctions against Damascus by adding another Syrian official and six firms and government institutions to its sanctions list on Monday.

The group also imposed a specific ban on insuring items embargoed for delivery to Syria, including weapons. The move came after Russia sent a cargo ship carrying attack helicopters for Syria and international insurers Standard Club that offering insurance for the shipment would breach EU sanctions.

In turn, Standard Club cancelled insurance for the ship as well as others in the fleet owned by the same Russian shipping company, forcing the vessel to return to Russia.

The incident showed the extent of measures the West could adopt to keep the pressure high on Syria.

At one point, it has been reported, the British authorities even considered sending its naval forces to seize the Russian shipment.

The Syrian crisis has split the international community, with Russia and China emerging as strong allies of the Iran-backed regime in Damascus and the US and its allies seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

Russia and China, along with Iran, have even scheduled a massive naval exercise in Syria beginning late this month or early next month in what should be taken as a strong message against foreign military intervention in the country.

Moscow and Beijing are also blocking UN Security Council action to end the bloodbath in Syria. That the two big powers have taken such a policy that could negatively affect their relations with the West as well as most Arab countries highlights the importance they attach to supporting the Syrian regime.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that his country does not accept that foreign powers have the right to decide who should rule any country. That approach is based on a belief that the Russian regime also could face an internal challenge and does not want to set a precedent by supporting external action in the Syrian case.

Putin is also worried that an Islamist regime could emerge in a hypothetical post-Assad Syria and this could strengthen the Islamist wave across the region and eventually reach the Russian shores and challenge the Moscow government.

US President Barack Obama had been pushing Putin to accept a compromise plan floated by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan under which Syrian Vice-President Farouk Al Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim, will replace Assad, an Alawite with Assad’s brother-in-law, deputy chief of staff General Shawqat Asif, serving alongside him. Assad will then go into exile in Russia, under the plan.

But Putin knows well that the Syrian strongman will never accept this and hence he keeps on calling for Annan to continue his efforts.

In the meantime, the Western alliance is busy considering its options. And today’s North Atlantic Council could determine what options to adopt and what options could be dropped.

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