(Corrects premier’s name in fourth paragraph. See EXTRA for more on the Syrian conflict.)
Syria’s military accused Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of stoking border tensions after a Syrian helicopter was shot down close to their border.
The Mi-17 strayed into Turkish airspace and was on a flight path back when it came under attack, the Syrian armed forces said on the state-run Sana news agency. The incident was the most direct confrontation between the two sides since Syria shot down a Turkish F-4 jet in June 2012, saying it encroached on its airspace.
Syria’s civil war has spilled over into neighboring countries, sparking deadly sectarian violence in Lebanon and sporadic skirmishes along the Turkish and Israeli borders. The prospect of wider regional conflict spurred by a possible U.S. strike to punish the government for using chemical weapons has roiled financial markets. The Turkish lira weakened against dollar yesterday following the incident and extended its decline today to 2.0091 a dollar at 2:45 p.m. in Istanbul after the central bank kept its main interest rates unchanged.
“The hasty reaction by the Turkish side, especially that the helicopter was on its way back and wasn’t assigned any combat missions shows the true intentions of Erdogan’s government,” the Syrian armed forces said.
Relations between Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leaders who once vacationed together, have worsened since the Syrian crisis broke out in 2011, with the two accusing each other of stoking instability. Turkey hosts opposition groups and backs rebels fighting to end Assad’s rule. Turkish authorities blamed Turks with ties to Syrian intelligence for a car bomb attack that killed 46 people in a border area this year.
Ersat Hurmuzlu, adviser to Turkish President Abdullah Gul, said in a televised interview that rules of engagement were changed after last year’s shooting of the Turkish jet. The Syrian helicopter entered Turkish air space at 2:25 p.m. local time and was engaged by a jet two minutes later, the Turkish military said.
A YouTube video sent by the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights today showed anti-Assad fighters pointing to the body of what they said was a pilot. “God is Great! Your day is coming, Oh Bashar!” the video shows one man shouting. Others fired celebratory shots in the air.
The military crackdown on what began as a peaceful uprising against his government has isolated Assad in the Middle East, turning friends like Erdogan into foes and deepening rifts with oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met his Turkish and Saudi counterparts yesterday in Paris as he sought to line up support for a Sept. 14 agreement with Russia to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons by mid-2014. Under the accord, reached in Geneva, Assad has a week to submit a list of his inventory of toxic arms.
While Turkey said the accord, which averted a U.S. strike against Assad, was a positive step toward ridding the region of unconventional weapons, it said the timeframe “is lengthy and susceptible to the exploitation of the regime,” according to a foreign ministry statement. Gulf Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, have said the deal wasn’t enough to rein Assad in.
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said today his country is prepared to provide experts to help oversee the elimination of Assad’s arsenal. Opponents of the Syrian leader accuse his forces of using the nerve agent sarin on Aug. 21, killing more than 1,400 people, a charge his government denies. A United Nations report released yesterday confirmed the use of chemical weapons without naming the perpetrators.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose government is Assad’s strongest ally, called today for an “impartial, objective and professional” inquiry into the attack.
“We have the most serious grounds to consider it a provocation,” he told reporters after talks with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Moscow. “Some of our partners said dictatorially that only the regime could use such weapons, but the truth must be established.”
The receding prospect of Western military intervention helped push oil prices down for a third day. The West Texas Intermediate crude for October delivery declined as much as $1 to $105.59 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The accord in Geneva, however, won’t deter the U.S. and its allies from pursuing an end to Assad’s rule, Kerry, Hague and Fabius said yesterday in Paris. To achieve this, the Obama administration should help enforce a no-fly zone over the Arab country, said Salim Idris, commander of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army.
“They can help us doing strikes using long distance rockets using air force and not to directly send fighters to the ground,” Idris said in an interview with PBS’s NewsHour, according to an e-mailed copy of his remarks. He said the FSA was receiving “many kinds of support from our American friends but I can’t talk in the media about military support.”
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