Pro-Palestinian Turkish activists wave Turkish and Palestinian flags during the welcoming ceremony for the Mavi Marmara ship docked at the Sarayburnu port of İstanbul on Dec. 26, 2010. (PHOTO Reuters)
While the unfolding jet crisis has further deepened the tension between Turkey and strife-torn Syria, the strong Western reaction to the downing of a Turkish jet by Damascus differed greatly from the reaction to the Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine civilians were killed by Israeli commandos in international waters two years ago.

 The Western discourse regarding the two incidents reveals the strategic rationale behind the difference in its reaction which has nothing to do with an ethical standpoint but rather more to do with strategic calculations.

The fact is that Israel did not receive open criticism for that tragic event, even though it killed civilians who tried to defy the Gaza blockade to deliver aid to the people who have been trapped in the beleaguered, open-air-prison-like city for many years.

The shooting down of the Turkish jet by the Syrians seemingly forewarns of a new type of conflict and adds to the isolation of the embattled Syrian regime by the international community as the European Union tightens the noose of economic sanctions.

Turkey’s allies — the US, NATO and the EU — have lambasted the Syrian regime strongly and without hesitation for its reckless and risky maneuver, the shooting down of an unarmed aircraft without warning, which added a new twist to the festering puzzle.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slammed the Syrian administration and called the downing of the Turkish jet brazen and unacceptable. “The United States condemns this brazen and unacceptable act in the strongest possible terms. It is yet another reflection of the Syrian authorities’ callous disregard for international norms, human life and peace and security,” Clinton said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned Syria’s action as “outrageous” and said Britain is ready to support robust action against Syria by the UN Security Council. “The Assad regime should not make the mistake of believing that it can act with impunity. It will be held to account for its behavior,” Hague said.

The EU also strongly condemned Syria’s actions; however, it urged Turkey to be restrained in its response.

The Western response to this recent incident and vehement criticism of Damascus brought the Mavi Marmara incident into mind, regarding the fact that the West refrained from open criticism of Israel even though it had killed nine civilians in international waters.

The killing of activists onboard the Mavi Marmara sparked outrage across the world as Israel met with global condemnation but succeeded to eschew any legal action or direct criticism by the international community.

How can someone explain these two responses to different but in fact similar cases?

Regarding the US stance in both cases, Richard Peres, an American, İstanbul-based freelance journalist, said in remarks to Sunday’s Zaman that the US was naturally sympathetic towards Turkey when the Assad government shot down one of its planes.

“However, incidents involving Israel are another matter entirely. This is because there is a qualitative and historical difference between America’s perception of Israel and the rest of the Middle East, and that difference has been a fixture of American perceptions of the Middle East since 1967,” he said as he defined the decades-old pro-Israel stance taken by the US regarding events in the region.

According to him, the Mavi Marmara incident was viewed by America as a threat to Israel’s security since its blockade of Gaza is also seen as justifiable.

Turkey, a temporary, two-year member of the UN Security Council when the incident took place, brought the issue to the council, seeking the strong condemnation of Israel.

During a 10-hour emergency meeting, the 15 members of the UN Security Council hammered out the details of a statement to condemn the Israeli attack, but the text fell short of Turkey’s expectations.

The statement read, “The Security Council expressed deep regret at the loss of life and injuries resulting from the use of force during the Israeli military operation early on Monday in international waters against the convoy sailing to Gaza, and condemned those acts which had killed at least 10 civilians and wounded many more.” The statement was not as severe as Turkey had expected.

According to Peres, Israel benefits from two major factors in the United States. “First, criticism of Israel is politically incorrect among both major political parties. Secondly, it [Israel] continues to be viewed as a victim among countries that wish to destroy it, even though it is a superior military power.”

This point explains “why criticism of its attack of the Mavi Marmara in international waters was muted at best, with President [Barack] Obama offering only tepid negative comments. In summary, Israel is immune to criticism in the US,” he went on to say.

Peres underlined the lobby power of Israel, which has tremendous influence in the US Congress, even over the president. While Turkey is a key regional ally of the US, America has a special relationship with Israel, defying rationality and even strategic reasoning for its own interests. Therefore, as he succinctly puts it, when incidents involve Israel, US support is almost unequivocal, regardless of the situation.

Markar Esayan, a journalist and columnist for the Taraf daily, said the primary reason why the West strongly condemned the downing of the Turkish jet by Damascus is the fact that Bashar al-Assad’s regime has lost all credibility and is treated as a brutal dictator in the international arena in the face of his ongoing slaughter of civilians.

However, Western governments remained silent to some extent over the Mavi Marmara incident because there had already been strong signs that a disaster was looming, no precautions were taken  to prevent it from happening.

Israel had openly announced that an operation was going to take place if the ship insisted on its route. “Having knowledge of how Israel has handled … such cases in the past, there should have been preparedness,” he said.

“This must not be read as a justification of what happened on the ship or what Israel did, but, in my opinion, there were strong signs suggesting that something was going to happen and nobody had taken precautions for it. This failure ended in the killings of innocent civilians.”

In contrast to the US, Europe has a more objective stance regarding the issue, Peres said. However, it did not go far in its condemnation of Israel over the Mavi Marmara incident. Western media outlets treated the activists as extremist Islamists. Many leaders highlighted the Israeli right to defend itself and did not question the legality of the Gaza blockade.

The extensive use of force and the botched Israeli commando operation on board the ship resulting in the killing of nine civilians constituted the core criticism leveled against Israel.

The Palmer report, drafted by a UN inquiry commission regarding the Mavi Marmara incident, was published last summer but did not satisfy Israel or Turkey.