Syria and Turkey: running out of road
“There are no good options on Syria,” the world’s analysts have sighed in collective resignation. Much as Western diplomacy is poised to save the world from itself once more, the do-gooders of the world have had to act with a modicum of restraint – knowing full well that that any intervention in Syria is not guaranteed to bring peace, protect civillians, force Bashar Al-Assad out of power or, more honestly, secure western interests. This wisdom does, however, stand to be discarded on Tuesday, as NATO meets to mull over an adequate response to Syria’s attack on two Turkish jets in the last few days. By KHADIJA PATEL.
On Monday, Turkey's state-run news agency announced that 33 members of the Syrian military had defected to Turkey with their families. The Anadolu agency said the group, which includes a general and two colonels, crossed into Turkey overnight and that they were being hosted at a refugee camp near the border. This latest defection brings the total number of Syrian generals in Turkey to 13.
Turkey, however, has not been alone in playing host to defected Syrian forces. On Sunday, another three Syrian officers, all of them fighter pilots, defected to Jordan with their families – this after another Syrian pilot flew his plane into Jordan, seeking asylum on June 21. Altogether, then, there is an increasing number of Syrian army defections to neighbouring countries, but it is the defections to Turkey that come at an especially critical time.
Turkey has been licking its wounds since Saturday, when it was revealed Syria gunned down a Turkish jet that had encroached on Syrian airspace. By Turkey’s own admission, the jet had accidentally crossed into Syrian airspace during a training exercise, but Turkish officials contend that it was shot down 13 nautical miles outside Syria. Over the weekend, Turkish foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu was at pains to rebuff any speculation of clanestine Turkish military activity in Syria. No, he claims, the Turkish were not spying on Syria. The downed jet was on a routine training exercise. He claims the jet was not even armed – but the act of firing against the jet without due warning is interpreted by Turkey as an act of aggression.
After an eight-hour long cabinet meeting on Monday, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Ar?nç revealed for the first time that Syrian forces had also opened ground fire on a search and rescue plane shortly after the downing, but he did not say if that plane was hit. Ar?nç said Turkey retained its right to "retaliate" against what he called a "hostile act," but he added, "We have no intention of going at war with anyone." Still, he added that Turkey would push NATO to consider the jet's downing under Article 5 in a key alliance treaty. Article 5 states that an attack against one NATO member shall be considered an attack against all members – Article 5 has been invoked and acted upon only once, after the September 11 terror attacks.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi on Monday was adamant that the plane was shot down in Syrian airspace, disputing Turkey's claim that it was downed over international waters after briefly straying into Syrian airspace by mistake. "What happened was a violation of Syrian airspace. Even Turkey says Syrian sovereignty was violated. Regardless of whether it was a training mission, a reconnaissance mission, it was a violation," Makdissi said. He said Syrian troops were unaware the plane was Turkish, adding in a concilatory tone that Turkey and Syria shared a “brotherly relationship”. The feeling, however, does not appear to be mutual.
Despite Turkey’s avowal not to be goaded into a war with Syria, the incident has renewed speculation that Turkey will at last act on its many veiled threats to take some form of action against Syria. After initially backing Al-Assad’s ability to implement reforms in Syria, Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdo?an grew increasingly wary of Al-Assad. During his visit to South Africa last year, Erdo?an complained repeatedly of being deceived by Al-Assad. By that time, Turkey had already thrown its lot in with the Syrian oppositon. Erdo?an has spoken repeatedly of taking further measures against Al-Assad – one option that is repeatedly touted by Turkish analysts is the creation of a buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Significantly, Turkey already hosts leaders of the Free Syrian Army on its soil. Claims that Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are arming the Syrian rebels continue to surface. Turkish officials vehemently deny arming the rebels, but they acknowledge that regime change in Syria is a priority. Some analysts believe that it is only America’s reluctance to become entangled in a fresh conflict that stands in the way of some form of direct Turkish intervention.
“Turkey is unlikely to go single-handedly into a military conflict with Syria, but it will look to the international community to increase pressure on Al-Assad,” Kadir Ustun, Research Director at the SETA Foundation in Washington DC said. Ustun believes that to date, all the international pressure has amounted to little in the form of a political intervention in Syria. He argues that the chorus of international condemnation against Al-Assad, and repeated calls for him to step down, have been too disjointed to actually achieve anything. What Turkey will be looking for from the NATO meeting on Tuesday is an opportunity to galvanise the international community around a political plan to end the crisis. Turkey wants the international community to acknowledge the effect the Syrian conflict has on its own safety, and then come up with some sort of a plan that does actually find a good option for Syria.
Many will point out that Kofi Annan’s political plan amounted to nought. If anything, the United Nations’ efforts to intevene politically in Syria demonstrated the complexity of the crisis – peacekeepers left Syria telling the world that the country was in fact in the throes of a civil war. How, then, are Turkey’s efforts likely to achieve any other outcome? Ustun believes a Turkish effort to steer international political consensus on Syria may work – if not against Al-Assad, then certainly in persuading the motley crew of the Syrian opposition to unite. “Turkey will try to force the international community to take more action against Syria,” he said.
Until recently, the question of a combative Turkey meddling in its neighbours’ affairs would have been unthinkable. Turkey’s foreign policy has long been guided by Atatürk’s dictum “peace at home, peace in the world.” Only last year Mr Erdo?an was railing against “imperialist designs” in Libya. NATO had “no business there” he said, before belatedly joining its operations. Even then, Turkish forces stayed out of combat. A cornerstone of Erdo?an’s leadership was the “Zero problems with neighbours” approach – he sought the goodwill of his neighbours and he even earned it. For years, Syria and Turkey were suspicious of each other, but Erdo?an was able to mend that broken fence.
Until last year, Syria was the most successful example of Turkey’s soft power in the region, but it is Turkey’s hard power that Syria now seems destined to experience at some time in the coming months. Is Turkey really well-intentioned in all of this, or is the country morphing into an imperialist power in the Middle East? Consider as well that this weekend, Turkey launched a number of attacks against Kurdish rebels in Iraq – showing little deference to Iraqi sovereignity or indeed, international law – but determined to protect itself and its interests from harm. DM
- Growing less mild: Turkey’s foreign policy in The Economist
Photo: Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Kafrawaid, near Idlib, June 24, 2012. (REUTERS/Raad Al Fares/ Shaam News Network)