Will the tense situation between Syria and Turkey escalate into full-fledged
war? This possibility is looking increasingly likely after the most recent
conflagration on their common border.
Though it was unclear whether
forces loyal to President Bashar Assad were responsible for mortar fire from
Syria that killed five Turkish civilians, Ankara responded quickly and
decisively on Wednesday. Turkey’s military hit targets inside Syria, reportedly
killing Syrian soldiers.
This is not the first time the two countries
have come into direct conflict.
On June 22, the Syrian military shot down
a Turkish RF-4 Phantom reconnaissance aircraft together with two pilots.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a few bellicose declarations,
including calling the Assad regime a “clear and present danger.”
rules of engagement for the Turkish armed forces were changed and expanded. In
the future, any military element approaching Turkish borders from the Syrian
side would be considered a direct military threat. Still, at the time Turkish
military forces refrained from openly retaliating. This time they did
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Ankara has been providing support to the
Syrian opposition forces almost from the very beginning of the uprising against
Assad that began 18 months ago.
Turkey has emerged as a regional hub of
anti-Assad activity. In the past year, the opposition Syrian National Council
has established an office in Istanbul, with a section dedicated to military
coordination. The nominal leadership of the rebel Free Syrian Army, along with
an estimated 33,000 Syrians who fled the spiraling violence inside their
country, are based in 10 Turkish camps in the border region.
There are a
number of reasons for Ankara’s decision to turn against the Assad regime, after
several years during which the old rivalry between the countries seemed to be
weakening and relations improved. (In 2008, ties between Damascus and Ankara
were so good that Turkey served as a facilitator between Israel and Syria to
enter negotiations over the fate of the Golan Heights.) Ankara’s turn against
Damascus has more to do with Iran than with Syria. Turkey’s leaders, faced with
the strong ties that exist between Syria and Iran, realized the futility of
continuing to try to woo the Alawite regime away from the Shi’ite Islamic
Replacing Assad with a Sunni regime in Damascus would help
counter Iran’s Shi’ite expansionism in the region. Iran has succeeded in forging
strong ties with Iraq’s political leadership that is dominated by pro- Tehran
elements. And in Lebanon, Hezbollah, with its own standing army, has succeeded
in consolidating its political hegemony.
Assad has also been increasing
his support for the PKK, a terrorist organization fighting Turkey for an
autonomous Kurdistan that would be carved out of Turkish territory. Finally,
Turkey would like to see a quick end to the civil war in Syria in order to
prevent a major refugee crisis. Thousands of Syrians have already fled across
the border to Turkey to escape the brutality of Assad’s forces.
violence continues, a full-blown humanitarian crisis could be created in Turkey.
To prevent such a scenario, Ankara might be persuaded to use force to secure a
buffer zone inside Syrian territory. And this could lead to open fighting
between Syrian and Turkish forces.
It is still too early to determine
whether the situation on the Turkish-Syrian border will escalate. And it is
difficult to know who to root for. While it would be morally reprehensible to
back Assad’s ruthless regime, the alternative – the rise of a Syrian version of
the Muslim Brotherhood, followed by the wholesale slaughter of the hated Alawite
minority (and perhaps of other minorities such as Druse and Kurds who remained
loyal to Assad) – hardly promises to be an improvement.
point of view, regime change in Syria and a warming of ties with Turkey would be
Israel is closely monitoring the situation in both
But when it comes to changes in the Arab world, as we learned
in the Gaza Strip and then with the so-called Arab Spring, one must be careful
what one hopes for.