The Turkish parliament passed a resolution Thursday authorizing cross-border military operations in Syria, where the regime of Bashar Assad is struggling to hold on to power amid mounting gains of anti-regime rebels.
The resolution represents more of a political stamp of approval for the military actions that the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already executed - as Turkey shelled military targets in Syria for a second consecutive day Thursday - than any major policy shift. But the threat of the additional force ups the ante in a conflict that could easily widen beyond Syria’s borders.
The Turkish strikes came in reaction to a Syrian mortar strike Wednesday
on a Turkish town, killing five civilians and wounding nine.
“The negative impacts of the ongoing crisis in Syria on our national security is visible in an increasing fashion,” Erdogan said in the bill he submitted to parliament. “The aggressive actions targeting our national lands are at the threshold of armed attacks…. For that reason, it has become necessary to take precaution to act in a timely and quick manner against additional risks and threats facing our country.”
The bill passed by 320 to 129. The significant number of deputies voting against the bill evinced the extent to which further military action is a lightning rod issue in Turkey. While Turkish officials are shocked at the level of violence in the war next door and are feeling inundated by the thousands of Syrian refugees now seeking shelter in Turkey, average Turks have indicated that they do not want to become bogged down in Syria’s internal conflict.
The chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, opposed the government’s bill and said that approval for such action was “declaration of war.”
But Dr. Ilter Turan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University, says that the world should not get the wrong message from the Turkish government’s latest move.
“This passage is an act of deterrence more than an act of aggression or a stated intention to move into Syria,” explains Turan in a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post. “It’s not a declaration of war and no one here has suggested that we should get engaged militarily in Syria. Most people think Syria is a quagmire - you get in and you can’t out – and that we have no business intervening in Syria.”
Indeed, many Turkish politicians have expressed quasi-isolationist tendencies in their foreign policy platforms, preferring to stay out of regional entanglements as much as possible. When Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party swept to power in elections ten year ago this November, he sought to “correct” what he saw as a too pro-Western, pro-Israeli stance in favor of closer relationships with Arab neighbors and Iran. The following January and February, the Turkish parliament debated and ultimately rejected the US military’s request to use Turkish bases to create a second front in the then-imminent campaign to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The worsening war in Syria, however, has complicated Erdogan’s regional outlook and created an increasingly unstable position on Turkey’s southeastern border. Turkey’s stance vis-à-vis Syria shifted significantly after a Turkish jet was shot down by Syria in June. Syria says it was an accident; the circumstances are still under investigation. Given the brutal, indiscriminate force Assad’s loyalists have used in effort to quell the rebellion, which started 18 months ago as an offshoot of the Arab Spring, Erdogan officially withdrew his support from the Syrian regime and publicly called on Assad to step down.
More recently, Erdogan accused Assad of creating a “terrorist state,” has afforded asylum to major Syrian opposition figures and upwards of 94,000 refugees – the largest number in the region - and has pushed for a foreign-protected safe zone inside Syria.
The conflict has also strained relations between Ankara and Tehran, due to the Iranian regime’s continued backing of Assad and his forces. In September, Iran acknowledged that members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are providing “non-military assistance” in Syria.
Several Turkish media outlets noted that the parliamentary bill passed Thursday was dated Sept. 20, indicating that the government had been planning to ask for the authority to deploy troops inside Syria before the Tuesday attack that killed five Turks. Intense fighting between troops and rebels virtually spilled over into Turkey’s southeastern district of Akçakale Sept. 19 when gun battles sent bullets flying into Turkey and forced prompted authorities to shut local schools and ask residents to stay inside.
The combination of the resolution and the airstrikes raised concerns that Syria’s conflict was now officially flowing into neighboring countries, beyond the immense refuge crisis created by the intense fighting. Syrian officials clearly indicated yesterday, however, that they are not interested in having Turkey embroiled in the conflict.
Syria apologized through the United Nations for the mortar strike and said such an incident would not be repeated, said Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay, according to Reuters. “Syria accepts that it did it and apologizes. They said nothing like this will happen again. That's good. The UN mediated and spoke to Syria in the evening," Atalay said.
Mehmet Kalyoncu, an independent political analyst who has a column in the Today’s Zaman newspaper, says Turkey has been too slow to work at diffusing the conflict.
“What is happening today across the Turkish-Syrian border, and in relation to that inside Turkey, was all too clearly visible as early as a year and a half ago. One must have been blind not to see that; and unfortunately the Turkish government is not short of it,” says Kalyoncu.
In his recent columns, he posits that Turkey should have tried to break a deal earlier. “I have argued that that Ankara should not act in a way that would perpetuate the internal conflict in Syria, that Ankara should have kept the channels of communication open with the Syrian authorities, and…should have used its clout with the opposition factions to urge them to sit down at the negotiating table with the Syrian government, and start a political transition.” Finally, he added, “Ankara must avoid any military conflict with Syria.”
Several leading Turkish officials emphasized that indeed, Turkey was not seeking war with Syria.
"Turkey has no interest in a war with Syria. But Turkey is capable of protecting its borders and will retaliate when necessary," Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, said on his Twitter account. “Political, diplomatic initiatives will continue.”
Reuters material was used in this report.