With the embattled Syrian minority regime officially designated as a “hostile state” by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Rayyip Erdoğan -- who was unequivocally clear this Tuesday during a speech in Parliament that Bashar al-Assad's government represents a “clear and present danger” to the security of Turkey after shooting down an unarmed Turkish jet in international airspace -- we now find ourselves in a different set of circumstances.
Turkey has rushed to beef up security in key border areas, raised the alert level nationwide, changed the rules of engagement to respond immediately to any Syrian provocation and successfully secured NATO backing to respond to an uncalled for and unjustified attack on a Turkish jet. But the intelligence community is worried that the next provocation from the Assad regime or its unwavering patron, Iran, may not come from the border areas Turkey shares with both countries but most likely from a distant place where both Syria and Iran have substantial leverage: Lebanon.
Turkey has had some 500 soldiers deployed in southern Lebanon as part of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to keep the shaky peace deal intact in the border area between Israel and the Hezbollah-controlled south since September 2006. The mandate for Turkish troops in Lebanon is set to expire in September, and the government sent a new request this week to Parliament asking for a renewal of the mandate for another year starting Sept. 5, 2012. Since the ruling party has enough seats in Parliament, it will likely be approved.
The Turkish regiment in the base zone near the city of Tyre mostly comprises engineering and construction company soldiers who number 261. The Turkish navy with its 250 personnel is also contributing to the naval task force, sending one frigate, one corvette and two assault boats for peacekeeping patrol in the eastern Mediterranean, while allowing the UNIFIL vessels to use two Turkish ports, Mersin and Iskenderun, in the Mediterranean for logistical assistance. There are three Turkish officers serving in the UNIFIL headquarters and one in the UN headquarters. In addition to that, the Turkish armed forces provide training on a number of issues, from intelligence to logistics, to the Lebanese Armed Forces, as part of the bilateral agreements signed in January 2010 and April 2009. Turkey has provided well over $50 million worth of assistance to Lebanon so far.
Citing past incidents targeting other nationals of UNIFIL, intelligence officials point out that Turkish troops, even though they are not combat forces, may very well be a target of attack in order to send another stern message to Ankara. They single out Lebanon's Hezbollah as a perfect “messenger” and “contractor” for such an attack directed and organized by Iran or its proxy Syria. In December of last year, a bomb attack that wounded five French peacekeepers who were patrolling in the Hezbollah-controlled South Lebanon was interpreted as a carefully orchestrated plan to send a political message to the West, mainly France, which is a vocal critic of the Syrian regime and demands Assad's departure.
Raising the stakes by pulling Lebanon into the midst of the conflict, Iran is signaling that it is ready to resort to a “scorched earth” policy in case Syria falls out of the Persian sphere of influence. Tehran fears that the only leverage left to use in the Middle East against Arab countries and the international community is internal unrest in Lebanon, where it has long nurtured the military force called Hezbollah. It may have lost Hamas already to Egypt and the Gulf Arab countries when Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal left the movement's headquarters in Damascus for Qatar in January after refusing to endorse Assad's brutal violence against the opposition. Iran will fight harder to keep Hezbollah and its deadly arsenal in its possession so that it will continue to destabilize Lebanon, posing a threat to the region. In this power game, Turkish troops may very well become collateral damage.
Turkey has to keep in mind that Turkish troops are stationed in the most dangerous place in South Lebanon. The UN force has already suffered 294 fatalities since 1978 when it was first established. The UN secretary-general's report to the Security Council on April 20 admitted there are serious concerns that continue to impede Lebanon from establishing its territorial integrity, sovereignty and full independence. He said attacks on UNIFIL patrol troops remain a source of concern for the UN. The UN simply failed to deliver results on the mandate given by the relevant UN resolutions in resolving Lebanon's problems, from border delineation with Syria to ending daily Israeli incursions into Lebanon airspace and occupation in part of the village of Ghajar, and from establishing Lebanese government authority across the country to disarming militias including Hezbollah. Both Israel and Iran (the latter through its proxies, Syria and Hezbollah) have no interest in helping the Lebanese government solve these problems.
Though no single Turkish solder has been killed so far, maybe it is time to pull Turkish troops from UNIFIL lest they become targets of terror attacks or proxy wars in Lebanon. It is a somewhat bizarre situation that Turkey is the only country in the Middle East, with the exception of Qatar, that contributed to the UNIFIL force. Neither Egypt nor any other Arab country provided any troops to the Lebanon peacekeeping force. What is more, the US and the UK have consistently refrained from providing any soldiers to UNIFIL while encouraging Turkey to do more in Lebanon. In fact, it was the US's push in 2006 that caused Turkey to contribute forces to UNIFIL for the first time. It has renewed the yearly mandate for Turkish troop deployment since then.
There is also a risk of getting caught in the crossfire for Turkish troops. As Syria becomes more isolated and Assad's departure is seen as imminent, Iran may raise stakes in South Lebanon by conspiring with Hezbollah to launch rockets from South Lebanon to Israel, which may in turn lead to retaliation from Tel Aviv, in which case Turkish troops will get stuck between a rock and a hard place. During the Lebanon war in 2006, we saw that that some of the dangerous Israeli phosphorus bombs landed in areas very close to the barracks where Turkish troops were stationed.
The environment is not that so friendly for Turkish troops -- once revered and respected by all factions -- in Lebanon, where Shiites are actively supporting the Assad regime while Sunnis are very much opposed to it. As Assad realizes he has nothing to lose, he may decide to go after the troops he has been very much fearful of in Lebanon: Turks. When that happens, it will further polarize various groups in Lebanon and will start taking a heavy toll on the already-fragile political stability in the country.
Complicating matters more is the increasing evidence that Assad may have lost the control and command capabilities with at least some of the troops on the ground, raising the specter of renegade groups roaming the country. This troubles Turkish and Western policymakers even more, considering that chemical and other deadly arsenals in the military stockpile may fall into the hands of rogue elements in the Syrian army. If that is the case, the shooting down of the Turkish plane may even be a product of breakup in the chain of command. In any case, the situation looks more dangerous than it appears.
I believe we do not have to wait to see a repeat of the Beirut barracks bombing incident of 1983, during which 299 American and French troops were killed by a suicide attack that was blamed on Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria. Let's bring our boys home or at least pull them offshore where they can serve at a safe distance.