BRUSSELS — NATO is ready to defend Turkey, the alliance's top official said Tuesday, in a direct warning to Syria after a week of cross-border artillery and mortar exchanges dramatically escalated tensions between the two countries.
Ankara has sent additional fighter jets to reinforce an air base close to the frontier with Syria where shells killed five Turkish civilians last week, sparking fears of a wider regional crisis. Syria has defended its shelling of neighboring Turkey as an accidental outcome of its 18-month-old civil war.
The comments by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen were the strongest show of support to Turkey since the firing began Wednesday — though the solidarity is largely symbolic.
NATO member Turkey has sought backing in case it is attacked, but despite publicly supporting Syria's rebels Ankara isn't seeking direct intervention. And the alliance is thought to be reluctant to get involved militarily at a time when its main priority is the war in Afghanistan.
"Obviously Turkey can rely on NATO solidarity," Fogh Rasmussen said ahead of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. "We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary."
When pressed on what kind of trouble on the border would trigger those plans, NATO's chief said he could not discuss contingency plans. "We hope it won't be necessary to activate such plans, we do hope to see a political solution to the conflict in Syria," he said.
NATO officials said the plans have been around for decades and were not drawn up in response to the Syria crisis. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
In an address to lawmakers from the ruling party, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that Ankara will continue retaliating for attacks from Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.