When Turkish jets forced a Damascus-bound passenger plane suspected of carrying non-civilian cargo to land in Ankara, only hours after Turkish chief military commander Necdet Özel vowed to give a “harsher response” to Syria if shelling from the neighboring country continues to spill over the border, it became clearer that Turkey has come even closer to engaging in an open conflict with Syria. For that, it will not even hesitate to poke the eye of Russia, our major trading partner and new-found friend.
Now that war powers are already in place for the government, obtained by its parliamentary majority, there is practically nothing that will stop this government from declaring a war against Syrian regime. Though government officials have emphasized the deterrent strategy of sending Turkish troops across the Syrian border, aiming to dissuade the Syrian regime from further mortar strikes, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made it clear that neither was Turkey far from war.
It was simply unnecessary that at this juncture the war resolution be passed by Parliament when it was enough to exercise Turkey's right to defend its citizens with retaliatory attacks that were measured and limited. The government, under public pressure, needed to act to respond to a Syrian mortar shell that killed five civilians on Oct. 3 in the Turkish border town of Akçakale and it did so by firing back across the border at Syrian artillery battalions held responsible for the attack. But asking for a war mandate was simply an excessive step at this stage.
The government seems to be divided on how far Turkey should take the matter with Syria. The relentless war lobby is after a “fait accompli” to commit the government and the country to a permanent war in Syria, but is afraid of the repercussions of presenting such a plan in the public. Opposition parties are against the risky adventure while the public is overwhelmingly opposed to the notion of the war. I am sure the war lobby would not mind to have a major provocation as a pretext to rally the public behind the conflict with Syria at some point.
The government should keep its moral high ground by continuing to provide sanctuary for over 100,000 refugees that have fled the civil war in Syria. It should keep up harsh criticism of the Assad regime's violent crackdown on its own civilians while lobbying in regional and global platforms to exert pressure on the regime. But why should we play the ram-head in taking down the minority regime in Syria when there is no strong appetite in the international community for facilitating the overthrow? Turkey does not need to be a Don Quixote here.
Let's face the facts. The US has no desire to commit itself deeply in the Syrian conflict, as it must be abundantly clear to everybody by now. The US has pushed the brakes on helping the Syrian opposition and even prevented the supply of heavy weaponry from Doha and Riyadh. The fact that opposition fighters are running out of munitions is a result of this American policy. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan are not consulting over the phone unlike it was the case 2011 during events in Egypt and Libya. And there are few signs that the US approach will change after the November elections, a fact which dashes the hopes of the war lobby in Ankara.
On August 30, when France chaired the UN Security Council meeting over Syria, Turkish calls for a safe zone to be set up to protect civilians in Syria was snubbed – only France and the UK sent their foreign ministers to the meeting while those of the US, Russia and China shied away. It was interesting to note that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to be found only some 50 km away from New York City at her residence in Chappaqua, opted to skip the UNSC gathering. That she was able to find time for sojourns to a number of foreign countries over the summer but not for a ministerial session nearby should tell us something.
I think the message is crystal clear: Americans are not prepared to offer up what the Turkish foreign minister was requesting. A disappointed Ahmet Davutoğlu had to admit that he miscalculated the willingness of UNSC members in this regard in his speech at the meeting.
“While I regret the absence of some of my colleagues, I would like to believe that their non-participation is not an indication of their level of interest and concern in view of the developments in Syria,” he remarked.
The last thing Obama wants at this point is a Syrian crisis spiraling out of control that would put him in a weak spot in regard to his Republican challenger. Maybe that is exactly what the war lobby in Ankara wants. Creating an outrageous incident in response to which Turkey would feel the need to invoke Article 5 of the NATO military alliance, the clause on collective defense, might force Obama into a corner on the eve of presidential elections and prompt an American intervention. Turkey has already requested a NATO debate on the Syrian crisis twice under Article 4 of the NATO charter, one over the downing of a Turkish jet in July and the other over the recent cross-border mortar strike. Sensing a soft underbelly for Obama on the Syrian issue, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has made it known repeatedly that his views on Syria differ fundamentally from those of the American president.
The European Union, already mired in its own economic and political crises, has no real influence on what is happening on the ground in Syria. What they have offered so far to the issue is limited to statements of support with no real substance. Even when it comes to humanitarian aid, Europe has offered scant contributions to sharing the Turkish financial burden from the crisis. The unexpectedly harsh EU progress report issued on Turkey this week widened the gulf between Turkey and the European bloc.
Russia believes it also has a huge stake in Syrian game. It has more to do with President Vladimir Putin's apprehension with the opposition inside Russia, apparently supported by the US, and less to do with strategic calculations regarding Syria or the Middle East. Putin, leery of what some call the “Russian Spring,” wants to fortify the front against Western encroachment in Syria. China has its own reasons, but generally follows Russia's lead in responding to the conflict. And for Iran, obviously, Syria's falling off the Shiite crescent would mean a major dent in Tehran's effort to keep Turkey, Israel and Sunni Arab regimes at bay, and off-balance.
No doubt that the poorly equipped Syrian army is no match for the Turkish army, the second largest military in the NATO after the US. However, a war against Syria will be a war of attrition and will be fought against not a few enemies in the region. There is no clear exit strategy in a country that has already plunged into a civil war. Turkey will find it difficult to stabilize the country militarily and economically after so much bloodshed and devastation.
What is more worrisome is that there will be a serious blowback to Turkey through further aggravation of its domestic woes, especially with regard to Kurdish and Alevi minorities. We may see deadlier terrorist attacks targeting Turkish interests in the future. Its export-oriented economy will also get battered by the tension in the region, which may result in a significant drop in Turkish trade. Turkey needs to tread carefully in Syrian waters and it should let internal dynamics in Syria settle their own Assad problem. The Americans are determined to lead from behind -- why should we not do the same?