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June 24, 2012, Sunday

Syria’s shot at the heels

We are aware of the tradition in the mafia that if its leadership wants to warn somebody it does not like, but is unable to destroy, he is given a warning shot in the heels. The incident with the downed Turkish Air Force jet is similar to this analogy: A state, run by a bloody and ruthless political mafia, seems to have issued a shot aimed at the heel. But, this one is the Achilles’ heel of the body of relations with Syria which may help speed up the end of the regime.

Damascus has already said the Turkish F-4 jet was hit while it was in its airspace. Turkey says it was shot down over international waters. But, as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu admitted yesterday, the plane, “on a training mission,” had flipped over briefly into the Syrian side, to be instructed by its Turkish command center to immediately “get out of there.” Yet, Davutoğlu added, it was shot down 15 minutes after it “trespassed,” having already gotten out of there.

Those are the crucial details. The most urgent issue, at the moment, is to find out what happened to the pilots. The search may end with some results after this article goes to print, but an easy guess is, given the eyewitness accounts and official hints, there is little chance of survival. Yet, an uneasy point is that they may have been captured by the Syrians or the Russians. The plane was flying low near a Russian base and was shot down and crashed into the sea in the vicinity of the village of Um al-Toyour some seven miles off the coast. The sea depth is 1,300 meters, which makes the search mission extra difficult.

The possibility of capturing them alive is what causes extra caution on the Turkish side. It is obvious the pilots would in such a (remote) case be interrogated about what sort of mission the plane was on.

What is the significance of it all, and where is it taking us? It is hard to deny that the incident stirred up Ankara, already worried due to what is taking place in Syria. The nature of the event seems open to debate, but Ankara seems keen that Syria acted in, at least, ill-will, with an intent to provoke counter-action, which may drag other powers to choose clearer positions, pro or against.

Will Syria apologize? If not, what would Turkey’s reaction be? The nasty episode has put Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in a strained position. So far it has been acting very rationally, acting in sync with the US, EU and NATO. It belongs to the Friends of Syria group, and is heavily involved in a proactive diplomacy to stop the bloodshed, to get the declaration of a cease-fire and the opening up of a humanitarian corridor and, eventually, regime change.

An overreaction is very dangerous. Ankara knows that, despite an air of support, it would find very little -- if any at all -- solidarity if it retaliates. The US is unwilling to do anything drastic at least until its elections are over. The EU is far too slippery in international politics, particularly at a time of huge stress in the eastern Mediterranean -- oil, gas and all that -- with Cyprus, clearly hostile to Ankara, ready to take over the presidency in a few days, with the addition of another state, Israel, not on very friendly terms with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government either.

Therefore, domestically, Erdoğan is not willing to go it alone. The AKP government seems inclined to tone it down, given the circumstances I have outlined, without easing the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad. He also knows that, according to the very recent polls by pollster ANAR, around two-thirds of the population do not want any military confrontation with Syria (although more than half express certainty that the Turkish army would win). That is the reason why he now seeks common ground among the four parties to agree on an alternative path without military retaliation, (which the Kemalist Republican People’s Party [CHP] and pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party [BDP] can agree on) or a parliamentary vote on “casus belli” should a similar incident occur again.

But what counts more is the international dimension. The Brits now seem ready to take the issue to the UN Security Council, but face again the Russians’ veto power. What will NATO do? The EU foreign ministers meet this week on the issue, but the expectations are low because of Cyprus and Greece (which will find an opportunity to blame Turkey over its Aegean dispute).

Davutoğlu has invoked Article 4 of the NATO charter on consultations, and a meeting is due in a few days. Even there, hopes are not to be held high.

Joshua Walker in his blog with Foreign Policy quotes Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO, as saying: “A response [from a NATO meeting] could be anything from a statement reiterating the inviolability of security guarantees to members coordinating activities so that they can respond to further attacks on Turkish interests.” He doesn’t believe today’s incident alone will alter the international community’s response to the Syrian conflict, but thinks a NATO meeting on the matter could nurture a broader discussion about how to intervene militarily in Syria outside the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have repeatedly opposed such action.

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