A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Has Turkey Overextended Itself in Syria Confrontation?

Turkey continues to talk tough on Syria, with border shelling, yesterday's interception of a Syrian civilian aircraft and seizure of ammunition aboard, and a drumbeat of threats and posturing. This has led some serious observers, such as Robert Wright in The Atlantic, to fear that Turkey and Syria, though neither wants it, may be on a course for war.

At least for now, count me among the skeptics. If anything, I suspect Turkey has climbed out on a limb and has noticed that it's rather lonely out there. Most of the belligerent language coming from the US these days is towards Iran,  with a month left in a Presidential election campaign; Syria is not completely off the radar, but it's hardly central.

I think Andrew Parasaliti's judgment in Al=Monitor is on target, "As Assad Hangs On, Turkey Confronts Failure in Syria":
Turkish intervention in Syria is unpopular and Ankara may be desperate to end it.  A clear majority of Turkish citizens oppose intervention in Syria, according to a recent poll. Just two years ago, Turkey prospered under a “good neighbor” policy with Syria, Iran and Iraq.  Now Turkey has problems along all three borders . . .
Prime Minister Erdogan’s government, on the front lines, seems now to realize the futility of its current policies.  Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said this week that Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa would be a suitable transitional figure. Abdulbaset Sieda, the head of the opposition Syrian National Congress (SNC), backed by Turkey, also expressed a willingness to consider engagement with members of Syria’s Ba’th government and said an opposition meeting next week in Doha would consider next steps and a role for Sharaa.
And Aaron Stein and Dov Friedman at The National Interest note that Turkey's military options are limited: 
Yet Turkey’s proportional response may stem less from high-mindedness and more from a startlingly limited array of options. Turkey’s intelligence-collection capabilities are limited, making target selection difficult and the possibility of air strikes remote. While it could have sent military aircraft to strike Syrian sites, Syria’s capable air defenses complicated the decision. Turkey remembers very well what Syrian air defenses can do to a Turkish fighter jet, and the potential for casualties factored into Turkey’s response.

Erdogan and other AKP officials have periodically floated a buffer zone, and in theory, Turkey might have taken advantage of this opportunity to follow through on its oft-repeated threat. Turkey could have argued it needed to invade to push Syrian artillery out of range of Turkish cities and villages. However, deploying ground forces over five civilian deaths would have thrust Turkey even deeper into the Syrian conflict and risked moving too far out in front of its Western and Arab allies. The Erdogan government alone simply could not risk igniting full-scale conflict with Syria, nor could it risk being reined in by the intervention-wary members of NATO.
And Sami Kohen in Turkey's Milliyet buys onto the out-on-a-limb interpretation:
It is obvious that the international community, including Western allies, don’t want a Syria-Turkey war or a military intervention by Turkey. NATO doesn’t want to risk being drawn into such a clash. Arab countries are mute. Saudi Arabia and Qatar (under US pressure) have stopped supplying heavy weapons to the Syrian opposition. In short, the point we have reached is total isolation of Turkey in its friction with Syria, except occasional verbal support and expressions of sympathy.

There is no point in blaming only the others for the situation. What we must acknowledge is that our government miscalculated the potential reactions and attitudes of the international community, including our allies, while planning the steps to take with Syria.
It is not too late for Ankara to readjust its policies according to this reality.
Turkey is sophisticated enough to understand the geopolitics of the situation and the risks inherent in letting the border exchanges spin out of control. While eager to see Asad gone, it can hardly welcome the prospect of a disintegration of Syria or a power vacuum. Nor is it pleased by the fact that, as this blog has noted previously, Syrian Kurds have displayed PKK flags alongside those of Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government. Turkey's best interests lie in some sort of managed transition in Syria, not in an unpredictable and uncontrollable civil war. Turkey's military is large and well-trained, but Syria has formidable air defense and the Turkish Air Force would face a major challenge in trying to suppress it.

Of course, there is always a danger when two countries are engaging in a low-level border conflict that something will spin out of the control of either side. That's why Turkey, finding itself rather overextended, may be looking for ways to stand down a bit from the current level of confrontation, as Andrew Parasaliti suggested they are doing with the Farouk al-Sharaa proposal.

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