Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned Damascus to beware of Turkey's wrath after Syria shot down a Turkish F-4 jet over the Mediterranean on June 23. And he declared a change in the rules of engagement. “Every military element approaching Turkey from the Syrian border and representing a security risk and danger will be assessed as a military threat and will be treated as a military target,” Erdoğan boomed in a speech to his parliamentary party which was met with raucous applause and chants of support. He did not say though how close to the Turkish border Syrian military units had to approach to be judged as a threat and a legitimate target.
The military did not return calls requesting clarification and civilian officials referred reporters to the military.
“The problem is when do you decide what constitutes a military threat?” said İstanbul-based analyst Gareth Jenkins. “The real danger is an accident -- someone pressing the button and shooting something down which actually doesn’t pose a threat.”
It was not clear whether opposition fighters’ advances were directly related to Turkey’s tougher military stance, but Syrian opposition forces said they had taken control of territory as far as 40 kilometers (25 miles) inside the border in recent days.
Along the border, opposition fighters were noticeably more relaxed than in previous weeks, lounging under trees and even manning checkpoints at gaps in the barbed wire fence running along the wooded hillsides to process refugees.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces pulled out of some towns and villages and regrouped north and west of the city of Aleppo and began shelling those same settlements with artillery, said Abu al-Walid, an official with the Al-Wihdawiya rebel brigade which operates in Idlib province.
The withdrawal of Syrian troops could be a tactic, rather than a sign of weakness.
“The Syrian army pull-back has made matters worse for the civilian population because Assad is now relying on random artillery shelling to pacify the population,” said Mohammad Abdallah, an opposition activist in Idlib.
The pull-back has opened holes in the frontier allowing opposition fighters to move more supplies to besieged towns and cities, activists operating on the border said.
But the picture on the ground is far from uniform, with Syrian troops maintaining a significant presence in the northwest of Idlib province and controlling the two main crossings of Bab al-Hawa and Bab Izaz on the border with Turkey’s Hatay province.
Syrian helicopters are still flying in and out of those border posts, witnesses said, testing Turkey’s new rules of engagement and Ankara’s will to follow through on its threats.
Turkish F-16 fighter jets scrambled on Saturday and Sunday after Syrian helicopters approached the border.
A Reuters witness saw two Syrian helicopters flying close to a Turkish border post in Kilis province on Monday and smoke from explosions rising from a nearby small town on the Syrian side. The sound of a jet could be heard flying at high altitude, but again there was no armed response to the Syrian aircraft.
Syrian artillery shelled the town of Izaz, in Aleppo province, just seven kilometers from the border on Monday and hit a hospital in al-Dana in Idlib province about the same distance from the frontier on Sunday, killing three people, said Abdallah.
“I do not think the Assad army is being restricted much by the Turks,” Abdallah said. Rebel fighters said they were frustrated with Turkey and doubted Ankara would ever really hit back at Syria over the shooting down of its jet. “The Turks are just trying to protect themselves so Assad doesn’t hurt them again,” said Free Syian Army General Mustafa al-Sheikh.
No move to no-fly zone
Defense analysts said Turkey’s moves were more a political reaction to the downing of its plane rather than a shift towards imposing a no-fly zone which would constitute a significant escalation of Turkish opposition to Assad from its present policy of allowing Syrian opposition fighters to operate from its territory. A no-fly zone would also entail much greater risk due to the presence of mobile Syrian air defense systems.
The deployment of Turkish anti-aircraft batteries up to the border and Turkey’s willingness to scramble its jets could, however, provide some cover for the rebels if, for example, Syrian aircraft began firing on opposition fighters close to the border and that was judged by Turkey to constitute a threat. Alongside his robust rhetoric though, Erdoğan also stressed Turkey would act within international law.
If Turkey were to down a Syrian aircraft in Syrian airspace, Ankara would lose the moral high-ground which it has sought to occupy due to its jet being shot down over what it says was international airspace. Syria says the plane was over its territory.
Erdoğan’s warnings were more for domestic consumption than a substantive change in policy, said Fadi Hakura, Turkey analyst at London think tank Chatham House. “I interpret those statements by Erdoğan as a cover for a lack of a firm and unequivocal Turkish response to the shooting down of the Turkish jet by the Syrian military,” he said. “The downing of the Turkish jet exposed the limitations of Turkey’s ability to influence events in Syria.”
With a still-growing economy, Turkey under Erdoğan has sought to project its power in its Middle Eastern backyard, but there are limits to Ankara’s influence in the volatile region if, even with half a million men under arms, it is unwilling or unable to back up its strong words with force.
“Syria is the real test of Turkey’s ability to lead events in the Middle East,” said Hakura. “If Turkey cannot influence events in Syria it is highly unlikely that it will be able to influence events in the wider Middle East.” Ankara / Antakya Reuters