Prime Minister Recep Tayep Erdogan said in a speech this week that Turkey was
“not interested in war – but we’re not far from it either.”
confused phrase perfectly sums up the dilemmas in which Turkey’s policy toward
Syria and the Syrian revolution has placed it.
Turkish vacillation on the
Syrian issue in turn reflects broader Western indecision. This stands in stark
contrast to the determination of the Assad regime’s international backers, and
is in no small measure the reason the regime continues to defy reports of its
When the Arab Spring began in 2011, it seemed Turkey
would be a natural beneficiary from it. If the Arabs were looking to combine
elections with a greater presence for Islam in public life, the ruling Justice
and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey could present itself as a model for the
achievement of this.
So when the uprising began in Syria, the Turks
enthusiastically threw themselves into the fray.
Ankara hosted and
sponsored the foundation of the opposition Syrian National Council. The notional
leaders of the Free Syrian Army established themselves on Turkish
There is evidence also of a much more active Turkish role, with
Ankara offering facilities for the training of rebel fighters and probably also
The West, seeking to avoid direct involvement in the
Syrian civil war, was pleased to contract out the central role in aiding the
Syrian opposition to Turkey (along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar).
Western analysts predicted the early fall of the Assad regime, and Erdogan was
presumably looking forward to sponsoring a new, friendly Sunni regime in
The problem is that Assad has held on. The result is a bloody
civil war, which is currently at a stalemate.
The dictator has been aided
by useful friends. Russia and China have blocked any effective response through
the United Nations Security Council.
Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, have
provided knowhow, money ($5 billion from Tehran since the start of the revolt)
Assad also appears to have shrewdly revived his relations
with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrilla group, which has renewed its
military campaign from northern Iraq into southeast Turkey.
The US and
the main EU countries have made do with verbal condemnation of Assad, economic
sanctions and some limited covert aid.
Facing the unwelcome prospect of
confronting the powerful coalition assembled behind Assad alone, Turkey has been
obliged to swallow a number of insults from its neighbor to the
The downing of a Turkish F-4 fighter over the Mediterranean in
June was the first of these. The killing of five civilians in the town of
Akcacale earlier this month represented the gravest deterioration
Turkey responded by shelling government troops across the border in
Syria for the first time since the outbreak of the uprising. Rather than
desisting, Syrian government forces have lobbed mortar shells across the border
on a number of additional occasions, though without any more fatalities so far
Turkey has beefed up its presence on the border, sending 25 additional F-16
fighter jets to its air base in Diyarbakir, in the southeast of the
There was widespread international condemnation of the Syrian
shelling of Akcacale. NATO Secretary- General Anders Fogh Rasmussen pledged this
week that Ankara can rely on the support of the alliance.
not be drawn on the nature of NATO contingency planning vis-a-vis Turkey and
Syria, however. There is little reason to think that the Western determination
to stay out of Syria will be moved by the latest events.
This places the
Turkish government in a difficult situation. There is little enthusiasm among
Turkish public opinion for an incursion into Syria. Turkish intervention in the
Syrian civil war would cost lives and lead to an uncertain outcome.
The opposition Republic People’s Party (CHP) has already begun to make political
capital out of the situation. The party argues that Erdogan’s high-profile aid
to the rebels has created problems for Turkey by incurring the anger and enmity
of the Assad regime while achieving little of note.
And then there are
the Kurds. Should Turkey intervene into Syria, it is likely that the Kurdish
guerrilla group would step up its campaign against Ankara, in line with its
apparent de facto rapprochement with Damascus.
So Erdogan is faced with a
series of unattractive alternatives. He can make a bold move against Assad in
the event of continued Syrian shelling; But this will mean entering the Syrian
quagmire with no meaningful Western support, with widespread public skepticism
at home and with the prospect that such a move will trigger a fearsome renewed
PKK paramilitary campaign.
Or he can continue to soak up Syrian insults
and risk being exposed as a hapless and indecisive leader whose bark is worse
than his bite.
As of now, the Turkish government appears keen to fudge
the issue. The government sought and approved parliamentary approval for
possible intervention. But its spokesmen then hastened to make clear that this
approval did not necessarily mean that intervention was imminent.
Turks have now forced a Syrian passenger airliner to land, on suspicion that it
was carrying “illegal cargo.”
This is a calculated humiliation for the
Syrians. But unless Damascus chooses to further up the ante, gestures of this
type will probably form the extent of the Turkish response at this
Parliamentary mandate in hand, the Turkish prime minister now
presumably hopes that the tit-for-tat fire across the border can be brought to a
messy and inconclusive end.
The apparent rudderlessness of Turkish policy
on Syria is itself a product of the more general Western confusion.
was always highly optimistic to suppose that the partial aid of Turkey, Saudi
Arabia and Qatar to the Syrian rebellion would be sufficient to defeat a regime
backed by Russia, Iran and China.
The West remains resolutely determined
to stay out of further involvement in Syria.
Turkey wants to support the
rebels, but without direct engagement. The result is that Ankara looks likely to
accept the “rules of the game” on the border, which will mean a tit-for-tat
Turkish response to Syrian shelling, rather than anything more decisive, for as
long as large-scale loss of life among Turkish citizens is avoided.