There has been ongoing outrage over the shooting down of an unarmed Turkish RF-4E jet by the Syrian military 13 nautical miles off the coast of Latakia a week ago.
The Turkish government admits that the training jet had indeed violated Syrian airspace, albeit briefly, after which it was gunned down by Syrian missiles in international waters. The Syrian government, on the other hand, is directly accusing Turkey for intentionally violating the airspace and territorial waters of Syria for reconnaissance and espionage purposes. President Bashar al-Assad’s government has been struggling against an ever-growing uprising over the past 16 months that has already cost the lives of more than 15,000 Syrian citizens.
The Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government in Turkey had maintained friendly relations with Syria before the uprising; the trade volume between the two countries had reached an impressive $2.3 billion by 2010. The citizens of the two countries were able to travel freely without any visa restrictions; the two governments even held joint meetings together. Following the start of the turmoil in Syria, Turkey initially approached the Assad government with the intention of brokering a deal that could help the Syrian government adapt a gradual political liberalization program that would allow for the voices of dissent to be represented. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made an emergency visit to Damascus in August 2011 and had a six-hour-long conversation with Assad to no avail. As the events intensified in Syria and refugees began flooding into Turkish territory across the 550-mile-long border, Turkey adopted an increasingly harsh tone against Damascus. Before the latest incident, Turkey was actively supporting the Free Syrian Army (FSA), allowing the training and arming of the opposition groups in the refugee camps by the United States and the Gulf countries. Prime Minister Erdoğan, in his speech to the Turkish Parliament last week, changed the rules of engagement with Syria, introducing a bellicose rhetoric for the first time since 1998. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) will shoot without warning in the presence of any Syrian military contingent near the Turkish border.
In the wake of this announcement Turkey has two options. Option one includes indiscriminate firing on the Syrian military units that are bound to violate Turkish airspace and territorial waters. Execution of this option could easily spiral the events into a regional war, including Lebanon and Israel. Many talking heads showcased in the mainstream Turkish media are advocating the aggressive use of the new rules of engagement without paying attention to the possible human and financial cost of an open confrontation with Syria, regardless of the relative weakness of the Syrian military. This would be the most tragic ending to the so-called “zero problems with neighbors” doctrine of Davutoğlu. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power at the end of 2002, it promised a new and refreshing perspective in the execution of Turkish foreign policy through an emphasis on common historical, cultural and social ties with its neighbors. As Turkey opened up to the Middle East, it has consistently denied accusations that it was trying to create a neo-Ottoman space. A military confrontation against Syria initiated by Turkey would boost the claims that Turkey has an interventionist agenda in the Middle East. Turkey felt a sense of relief after receiving NATO’s full support; however, this doesn’t make things any easier for Turkey. Turkish foreign policy experts downplay the strong pan-Arab sentiments that still run deep in most of the Middle East. In the event of a military confrontation with Syria, the Arab world could easily turn against the Turk. Furthermore, such military action would strengthen the hand of the anti-Turkey lobby within the increasingly xenophobic European Union members saying that a bellicose Turkey fighting with its Arab neighbor would have no place in the EU. One of the important selling points of the Turkish model in the wake of the Arab Spring was its candidacy for the EU. Turkey without an EU perspective could easily stop serving as a reference point for the reformers in the Arab world.
Option two includes sticking to diplomatic means and avoiding any acts of provocation against the Syrian military. There is no doubt that Assad has turned himself into a cruel dictator who is bound to lose amid a growing humanitarian catastrophe. Turkey so far has supported the cause of the dispersed opposition groups to remove Assad from power. However, resorting to violent means would not make things any better for Turkey. Any conflict intervention without a transition and exit strategy is bound to fail. The US forces in Iraq are a great example. In Syria, the opposition remains fragmented and still has not managed to gain the trust of the international community as a sustainable alternative to the Assad regime. Turkish forces do have the military and psychological capacity to overwhelm the Syrian military forces, but it is the aftermath of the intervention that matters. For that reason Turkish foreign policy makers should remain calm and strive to keep Turkey out of a catastrophic situation. The emergency meeting in Geneva seems to be the only possible way out.
*Doğa Ulaş Eralp works a consultant for fragile and conflict states in Washington, D.C.