Regional balances at stake after Syrian attack on Turkish jet

July 01, 2012, Sunday/ 13:21:00

Turkey, once a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has repeatedly condemned the brutal crackdown of the Assad regime following the Syrian uprising that began in March 2011 with civilian protests and which now threatens to become a full-scale, militarized conflict.

In the face of the increasing number of refugees fleeing the 16-month bloody crackdown in Syria, Turkey has long debated whether to establish a buffer zone to protect the refugees and continue attempts to settle the crisis through diplomacy.

Another option was cutting diplomatic channels to Syria and considering other steps such as military intervention, given the violation of Turkish borders and national security.

After an RF-4E Phantom, an unarmed reconnaissance version of the F-4 Turkish fighter jet, was shot down by Syria in the Mediterranean on June 22, Turkey alarmed the international community by summoning its NATO allies for emergency consultations under Article 4 of the NATO Charter on Tuesday, a move that potentially showed the seriousness of the situation, which for the first time could open the door to international military intervention in Syria.

In an interview with Sunday’s Zaman, Joshua W. Walker, a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the attack on the Turkish jet is a very critical issue, adding, “The fact that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu got on the phone with not only the United States but also Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia immediately after the downing of the Turkish plane shows how delicate the regional balance is at the moment over Syria.”

A day after the Turkish jet was shot down by Syria in international airspace, Davutoğlu talked to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi and EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton on the phone, letting the leading powers and neighboring countries know about the threat to Turkey’s national security.

Stating that tensions in the bilateral relationship between Turkey and Syria have made the status quo in the region untenable for Turkey, Walker says that as Ankara does not want to act unilaterally, it therefore has resorted to its multilateral options as demonstrated by the NATO meeting it called, using it as a first step of action.

However, Sergey Markedonov, a visiting fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and an expert on regional security, said in a conversation with Sunday’s Zaman that it is too early to talk of any change in the regional balance of power, adding that it depends if the number of incidents increase in the coming days, or at least remain the same.

Commenting on how Turkey does not intend to “keep its silence,” given its growing influence in the Middle East, Markedonov says that although Ankara is trying to involve international institutions such as NATO, what NATO would like to see is active intervention by Turkey. “Settling those problems -- which the alliance would like to resolve but cannot yet -- by Turkish hands is possible,” Markedonov says.

NATO on Tuesday condemned Syria’s downing of a Turkish military jet as unacceptable but ruled out the possibility of a military response.

The regional balance of power will not shift easily given the circumstances in the region: Firstly, NATO has not agreed to a military intervention in Syria; secondly, some of its members do not want to antagonize Russia, which is unlikely to change its current Mideast policy; and thirdly, the US’s “hands-off” policy to prevent any military intervention ahead of upcoming presidential elections.

Noting Russia’s Middle East policies will not change on the basis of one or two incidents, Markedonov says that Russian policies in the region will not change because of three main principles. He states that it is because Russia rejects the practice of humanitarian intervention and cannot turn a blind eye to its economic interests in the region, as well as the current situation in the North Caucasus -- with growing Islamist challenges that might strengthen given a victory by Assad’s opponents -- that Russia does not want endorse a call for Syrian President Assad to give up power.

“No one wants to lose millions of dollars for the ‘bright future’,” Markedonov said adding, “These three factors force Russia to support the Assad regime, rather than any special affiliation with dictatorship.”

Putin’s visit to Mideast is not occasional

Three days after the downing of Turkish jet by Syria in the Mediterranean Sea, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit to Israel, Palestine and Jordan, trying to boost Russia’s status in the region that has been begrimed by its recent supportive policy of Syria.

Considering Putin’s visit to the region as not coincidental, Walker also thinks that Russia is attempting to boost its reputation, which was shaken after it showed itself to be an opponent of democracy in the region by supporting the Assad regime.

“This shows how Russia is trying to play the role of mediator that Turkey once had, yet it has been extremely unsuccessful since Russia has no credibility in the region or with the West like Turkey does,” Walker said. Turkey initiated dialogue between Israel and Syria in 2008 for a comprehensive peace treaty with which Israel hoped to hinder the increasing power of Iran, the main supporter of anti-Israel groups Hezbollah and Hamas in the region. Turkey’s mediation efforts failed after Israel struck Gaza, which was called by Turkey a sign of “disrespect” toward Ankara’s peace efforts.

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