"Think, too, of the great part that is played by the unpredictable in war: think of it now, before you are actually committed to war. The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents. ... And when people are entering upon a war they do things the wrong way round. Action comes first, and it is only when they have already suffered that they begin to think."
— Thucydides, Athenian historian (c.460 B.C. — 390 B.C.)
The downing of a Turkish jet recently by Syrian ground forces was an unwarranted, provocative action — but one Syria will likely get away with, given the impasse among world powers over how to end the country's grueling 16-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria claims the RF-4E reconnaissance jet was shot down over Syrian airspace, which Turkey denies. Syria also excused the action by saying its forces didn't know whose plane it was before shooting it down.
But according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, Syrian forces called the plane "komsu" — the Turkish word for neighbor — in radio communications intercepted by Turkish intelligence.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed Syria's claim of violated airspace Tuesday, saying that Syrian reconnaissance aircraft have crossed into Turkish airspace five times in recent months without a violent response — but warning that such flights will no longer be tolerated.
"Any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria and poses a security risk and danger will be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target," Erdogan said.
Fortunately, Turkey has stopped short of threatening war. According to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, an attack on any member state is considered an attack on the entire alliance. But Turkey — whose forces are part of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan — has not pressed for retaliatory action from NATO against Syria, despite Erdogan's stern rhetoric.
"No one should be deceived by our cool-headed stance," Erdogan said Tuesday. "Our acting with common sense should not be perceived as weakness."
It is indeed common sense to avoid war with Syria for now, and our allies in Turkey deserve credit for keeping their cool. The fall of Assad without outside intervention seems increasingly likely — this week, he acknowledged on state television that "we are in a genuine state of war." Until recently, Assad insisted that the violence plaguing his country was the work of isolated, fringe terrorist groups.
Throughout history, seemingly minor events — such as Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination or the Gulf of Tonkin incident — have erupted into destructive, uncontrollable conflicts no one could have foreseen. If one doomed regime hopes to spark a similar chain reaction by provoking an important U.S. ally, NATO shouldn't take the bait.