October 4, 2012 § 19 Comments
Following yesterday’s shelling of Akçakale by Syrian forces and the retaliatory artillery strike by Turkey on Syria, there has been lots of speculation about what will come next and loose terminology about the “pending war” between the two countries. If a war actually happens, it won’t be the first time I’ve been very wrong and certainly won’t be the last, but I just don’t see a war happening for a number of reasons.
First, as I have noted too many times to count and as Aaron Stein firmly argued yesterday, there is simply no appetite on NATO’s part to get involved in Syria. Turkey was able to convene an Article 4 meeting in which NATO strongly condemned the Syrian shelling that killed five Turkish civilians, but that is about as far as NATO is willing to go. NATO is not going to get involved in setting up a buffer zone, a no-fly zone, or a humanitarian corridor inside Syria, and the U.S. is also not going to commit to doing any of those things any time soon. It has been clear for a year now that Turkey is not going to invade Syria on its own, which is why Ankara has desperately been trying to convince outside actors to intervene, and absent an international intervention, I don’t see yesterday’s incident changing this calculus. Without international support – and I’d note that Prime Minister Erdoğan has explicitly ruled out anything outside of official UN auspices – Turkey is going to stay out of Syria. With reports of Hizballah fighters and IRGC soldiers crawling inside Syrian borders, the Turkish government does not want to get entangled in a scenario that might quickly blow up out of its control.
Second, there is no reason for Syria not to back away from this as quickly as possible. The only way in which Turkey will be drawn into Syria unilaterally is if the Assad regime escalates this in a serious way, and while Assad and the Syrian army are unpredictable, this is not a fight they are eager to have. Syria has spent months testing Turkey’s patience and trying to figure out what its boundaries are, and yesterday’s events will make it clear to Syria that this was one step too far. The regime has its hands full with the FSA and doesn’t need to add the Turkish military into the mix, which explains the quick decision to express sorrow over the death of Turkish civilians and a promise to investigate. There are two possibilities here; either the shelling was unintentional, in which case Syria has every reason to back down, or it was done on purpose to test how far Turkey is willing to go in retaliation, in which case mission accomplished and Syria still has every reason to now back down. While allowing for the fact that this cannot necessarily be gamed out in an entirely logical manner, I don’t see a scenario in which Syria decides to turn this into a high intensity conflict.
There is little question that Turkey had no choice but to retaliate in some form yesterday. When Syrian forces shot across the border last spring and killed two Syrian refugees in Turkish camps, Turkey threatened retaliatory action but did nothing. When the Turkish F-4 reconnaissance plane was downed this summer, Turkey moved tanks and artillery to the border but ultimately stood down. This time, however, Turkish civilians died, and no government can afford to sit idly by when its citizens are targeted and killed by a hostile foreign government. Turkey needed to respond in some way, but it is instructive that the Turkish response was to shell some as yet to be described Syrian targets rather than launching an air strike. From a domestic political perspective, Erdoğan had to respond quickly (particularly given the near riot in Akçakale), and the move to get parliamentary authorization to launch operations inside of Syria is part and parcel of the same political concerns. The government needs to be seen as strong when Turkish blood is spilled, but Erdoğan is also playing this game very exactly, since there is a fine line between taking limited action that conveys strength and resolve and getting drawn into a tactical mess in Syria. What I expect will happen is another round of strong condemnations, more strident threats to intervene in Syria, mobilizing tanks, artillery, planes, and troops to the border…and ultimately Turkey will stay on its own side of the line. As I keep on reiterating, Turkey is in a lose-lose situation when it comes to Syria without a good answer at hand, and yesterday’s events reinforce that even further. The bottom line though is that given the constraints involved, it is going to take a lot more than shelling a border town to start a real war between Turkey and Syria.
October 3, 2012 § 2 Comments
Aaron Stein, who is a PhD candidate at King’s College focusing on nuclear and missile proliferation in the Middle East, is my guru on all things WMD and weapons-related, and he is my go to source whenever I have a question about specific defense issues or capabilities. Since he also conveniently happens to live in Turkey, he was the first person I turned to when thinking about how Turkey might respond militarily to today’s Syrian shelling across the Turkish border, and Aaron graciously agreed to write what is an extremely smart and timely blog post on the issue.
An errant Syrian mortar shell landed in Turkish territory today, killing five people and wounding many more. This latest provocation comes just five days after Turkey warned Syria that it would take action if Syrian artillery continued to accidently target Turkish territory. The previous warning came in the wake of another mortar strike that damaged homes, but, thankfully, did not result in any Turkish casualties. The recent strike is sure to raise tensions and will almost certainly prompt a Turkish response. However, the nature of that response is unclear and the range of options that is likely being debated is fraught with political and security risks.
The first and most obvious course of action would be for Ankara to issue a diplomatic note. Ankara used this tactic after Syrian protesters attacked the Turkish embassy in Damascus. It could also invoke article 4 of the NATO Convention and convene a meeting of NATO ambassadors to consult about the current security situation in Syria. Another more serious option would be to invoke NATO article 5 and thereby committing the other members of the Alliance to assist in Turkish defense. Critically, this does not obligate other members of the Alliance to take military action. Instead, the Article says that “the Parties . . . will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
Typically, the level of assistance, or the type of action, is not specified. However, it is unlikely that the current scenario would escalate to the point of Alliance wide military action in Syria. NATO is likely to respond by issuing a statement condemning Syrian aggression, mourning the loss of life, and reaffirming in the strongest words possible Turkey’s importance to the NATO alliance. NATO used this tactic after Turkey’s F-4 was shot down, but did little else.
This leaves Turkey with the option of pursuing independent military action. Ankara has made clear on multiple occasions that it has studied in depth the use of military force to carve out a “buffer zone” or to implement a “partial-no-fly-zone”. However, Ankara’s ability to implement such measures appears to be limited. It is worth noting that NATO’s intervention in Libya, which many tout as a potential model for a Syria, necessitated American involvement to carry out. The New York Times reported in April 2012 that “a confidential NATO assessment paints a sobering portrait of the alliance’s ability to carry out such [no-fly-zone] campaigns without significant support from the United States. The report concluded that the allies struggled to share crucial target information, lacked specialized planners and analysts, and overly relied on the United States for reconnaissance and refueling aircraft.”
The article quotes a European diplomat saying “If anything were to be envisaged over Syria, even in purely hypothetical terms, it would also rely heavily on U.S. capabilities.” Given the report’s conclusions, the idea of Turkey implementing a unilateral no fly zone, or even a limited buffer zone, appears to be a long shot. Much like what happened following the downing of the Turkish F-4, Ankara’s threats will probably not be acted upon.
If Turkey were to choose to strike militarily, it may do so by retaliating against Syrian artillery near the Turkish-Syrian border. However, this strategy is fraught with risk. A strike using Turkish F-16s would satisfy those eager for a reprisal attack but would not prevent future accidental strikes. Artillery is mobile and Syria is estimated to have thousands of mortars, howitzers, and tanks. Simply hitting one would likely result in Damascus replacing it with another. It is unclear if Ankara would risk a major escalation for such little gain. Moreover, Syrian air defenses have already proven themselves capable of shooting down Turkish aircraft.
Before authorizing a strike, Prime Minister Erdoğan would have to weigh the possibility of losing a pilot, or even worse, a major escalation, for a small gain. With the AKP catching flack for its handling of the Syrian crisis, Erdogan might conclude that this is the moment to follow through on his rhetoric and respond aggressively to the Syrian provocation. On the other hand, Erdoğan could conclude that the risks outweigh the benefits. Up until this point, Erdoğan has shown an unwillingness to do much on the military front other than talk tough and make threats. This time may be different, but prudence suggests that Turkey should use the incident to reinvigorate its calls for an international solution to the crisis.
Frankly, Turkey has few military options. A small strike would achieve few, if any, real gains. The Turkish military does not have the capabilities to implement a buffer zone, thus limiting its long-term options. While striking back at Syria may appease a certain segment of the Turkish electorate, the risk of escalation is considerable. Turkey should avoid striking Syrian targets and instead focus on its broader policy objectives. It should use the incident to condemn Syria for its act and leverage the Syrian provocation to garner more international support for a political solution.
September 27, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Michael Doran and Max Boot wrote an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times calling for U.S. intervention in Syria and arguing that there are a number of reasons why this is the opportune time to do so. Plenty of people who spend a lot more time than I do thinking about Syria and the costs and benefits of U.S. intervention, including Doran and Boot, have been writing about this issue for months, and so while I happen to think that intervention is not a great idea, I’m not sure that I have anything new to add to the debate. Doran and Boot did, however, invoke Turkey a number of times in their piece, and each time it was in the course of making claims about Turkey that are incorrect.
First, Doran and Boot wrote that “a more muscular American policy could keep the conflict from spreading. Syria’s civil war has already exacerbated sectarian strife in Lebanon and Iraq — and the Turkish government has accused Mr. Assad of supporting Kurdish militants in order to inflame tensions between the Kurds and Turkey.” Turkey has indeed accused the Syrian government on multiple occasions of supporting the PKK, and maybe Assad is and maybe he isn’t (I think that he probably is), but Doran and Boot are still inflating the benefits of intervention here. To begin with, the Syrian civil war is in absolutely zero danger of spreading to Turkey in the form of sectarian strife, and that won’t change even if it rages for a decade. More relevant though is that the PKK foothold in Syria is firmly established and American intervention and the removal of Assad will not change that. The PYD, which is the Syrian equivalent of the PKK, controls a large swath of territory along the Turkish-Syrian border, and American intervention would not be aimed at dislodging the PYD. What this means is that it actually doesn’t matter all that much anymore whether Assad stays or goes when it comes to the PKK inflaming tensions between Turkey and its Kurdish population since the PKK’s safe haven is pretty well established. That ship has already sailed, and using Turkish concerns about Assad’s support for the PKK as an excuse to advocate U.S. intervention is a red herring.
Second, they argue that “American leadership on Syria could improve relations with key allies like Turkey and Qatar. Both the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Qatari counterpart have criticized the United States for offering only nonlethal support to the rebellion. Both favor establishing a no-fly zone and ‘safe zones’ for civilians in Syrian territory.” As anyone who spends any time studying the U.S.-Turkey relationship knows, bilateral ties between the two countries hardly need improving, and it can be argued that they have actually never been closer at any point in history as they are now. It is correct that Ankara is frustrated that it has not had much luck budging the Obama administration on intervening, but the implication that our relationship with Turkey is in need of repair falls somewhere between ludicrous and absurd. Doran and Boot are both extremely sophisticated analysts who know that catering to Turkish or Qatari wishes is not a good enough reason for the U.S. to undertake military action, and so they threw in the suggestion that by not intervening we are endangering ties with our allies in the region. As far as Turkey goes, that is just not the case.
Finally, in what is perhaps the most egregious mistake in their piece, Doran and Boot posited, “The F.S.A. already controls much of the territory between the city [Aleppo] and the Turkish border, only 40 miles away. With American support, Turkish troops could easily establish a corridor for humanitarian aid and military supplies.” Sounds like a piece of cake, right? In reality, the claim that this would be an easy and cost-free mission for the Turkish military is a highly dubious one. As it is, Turkey is having a difficult time dealing with the PKK inside its own borders and has suffered high military casualties in the past few months of fighting. Then consider the fact that establishing, but even more saliently then holding and defending, a corridor for aid and supply lines is no easy task under any circumstances, least of all during a civil war when you will be targeted along a miles-long corridor by whatever is left of Syrian troops, PKK terrorists, and possibly PYD fighters as well. Tack on that the Turkish military has no experience with this type of mission, is currently bogged down fighting the PKK, and is facing leadership and morale issues at the top stemming from the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledeghammer) cases and the simultaneous resignations of its chief of staff and service heads last year, and you will start to see just how the “easily establish a corridor” line begins to break down. In addition, from a political perspective, Turkey’s Syria policy is not popular domestically and a military invasion would be even less so. It would be certain to result in Turkish casualties, and so the decision to launch an invasion to establish a corridor inside Syria is not going to be an easy one for the government to make, which might explain why despite months of bellicose threats, it hasn’t yet happened.
There may be lots of good reasons why the U.S. should be intervening in Syria, but let’s not pretend that we should do so for Turkey’s benefit, or that our stepping in will solve Turkey’s PKK problem, or that our partnering with Turkey in a Syrian invasion will be a cost-free enterprise for our Turkish allies. If we are going to have a debate about intervention, it should be based on reality rather than on fantasy.
August 24, 2012 § 1 Comment
Suat Kiniklioğlu wrote a clear headed column in Today’s Zaman on Wednesday in which he argued that Turkey is effectively at war with Syria and that the only solution to ending the Syrian problem is a military one. Given that Turkey is supporting and arming the Free Syrian Army and Kiniklioğlu contends that Syria is responding with increased support for the PKK, he wrote that Turkey has two basic options before it. Option one is to engage in direct war with Syria and set up a no-fly zone or buffer zone, and option two is to continue Turkey’s indirect war through supporting the opposition. After laying out the inherent problems with both approaches, Kiniklioğlu implied that he favors the first option of a more direct war:
The Syrian crisis and the concomitant rise in PKK terror have bitterly reminded us of the need for a professional fighting force. It is inconceivable that after three decades of fighting against the PKK we are still fighting with non-professional forces. Whether we like it or not the Syrian crisis has turned into a regional imbroglio. We must bring an end to the Syrian crisis — that can only be done through military means. Our government has the responsibility of holding to account those responsible for bombing our cities on a Ramadan holiday evening in Gaziantep.
This sentiment is an understandable one. The longer the mess in Syria drags on, the more it brings Turkey’s foreign policy credibility down with it. Things have become so bad that there are now calls for Ahmet Davutoğlu, who many assumed would replace Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as prime minister, to step down from his post as foreign minister. Turkey’s demands on Assad have fallen on deaf ears, Syrian provocations such as the downing of the Turkish reconnaissance jet have gone unanswered, and in the midst of all this the PKK has ramped up its attacks and made this the bloodiest summer for Turkey in decades. Arming the opposition has not gotten Turkey anywhere, and as Kiniklioğlu writes, the problem with a more direct military approach is that the Obama administration and NATO have shown close to zero willingness to intervene, which makes a unilateral Turkish intervention a far more difficult task. Turkey is in such a bad position at the moment that it almost seems as if there is no other choice but direct military confrontation with Syria, if for no other reason than to take the fight to the PKK. To paraphrase one of President George W. Bush’s more memorable lines, it’s better for Turkey to fight the PKK over there so it doesn’t have to fight the PKK over here.
The problem with this approach is that Turkey is having an enormous amount of trouble handling the PKK on its own territory, and I shudder to think about what will happen should the Turkish military chase the PKK over unfamiliar ground while adding the Syrian army into the mix. Nobody has any idea what is really going on in Hakkari, and just yesterday another six soldiers were killed in PKK bombings and assaults. As many PKK terrorists as the Turkish army is taking out, the military is suffering significant casualties of its own, and this despite sealing off an entire swath of southeastern Turkey and having the benefit of fighting on its own turf. Let’s say that Turkey decides to invade Syria with the dual purpose of eradicating as much of the PKK as possible and hastening the end of the Assad regime. How well would such an operation possibly go? Turkey has already sadly been on the wrong end of Syrian air defenses and would be fighting on foreign soil against the PKK, the PYD, some part of the Syrian army, and one cannot discount Iran at that point entering the mix. I get the bind that Turkey is in and the frustration at feeling impotent to control events despite having the second largest army in NATO, but stepping up overt military operations against Syria is a bad idea at this point. Turkey is in a terrible mess at the moment – albeit one partially of its own making given its years of supporting Assad and its complete lack of any Kurdish policy – but an invasion of Syria would only make things worse. There aren’t really any good options, which is what Kiniklioğlu’s column is getting at, but I think that the only real course Turkey has for now is to keep fighting the PKK at home, hope that Assad falls soon, and pray that whatever replaces him will be able to contain the fallout from migrating across Turkey’s borders. Intervening in Syria alone will not lead to a positive outcome, and in fact would have a high chance of creating even more headaches and security problems for Ankara than it already has.
August 6, 2012 § 2 Comments
As events blow up around – and within – its borders, Turkey has had a difficult time calibrating its next moves and figuring out what it wants to do. Say what you will about the simplistic naivete inherent in Ahmet Davutoğlu’s zero problem with neighbors, but at least it provided Turkey with a baseline direction for its foreign policy. At the moment, it seems like Turkey is moving from crisis to crisis on a completely ad hoc basis, and while Ankara may be doing a decent job of short term management, it is creating a host of potential big problems for itself down the road.
Exhibit A is Syria. Turkey famously dragged its heels at the outset, insisting that Assad was a reformer at heart and convinced that Erdoğan could use his relationship with Assad to coax him into easing up and beginning the process of transitioning to multiparty elections. Once Erdoğan realized that this was a pipe dream, he turned on Assad completely, and to Turkey’s great credit it has not wavered in its insistence that Assad must go. To Turkey’s even greater credit, it is expending significant resources to provide for Syrian refugees, and the government should be commended for taking on a thankless humanitarian task in such a thorough manner. Where Ankara seems to be thinking in a less than rigorous manner though is what comes after Assad. Turkey is working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support the Free Syrian Army, and that in itself should raise some red flags immediately. While the government touts itself as a democracy that supports democratic movements, and President Gül even pushed the idea of Turkey as a “virtuous power” in April, Saudi Arabia and Qatar care not a lick about establishing democracy in Turkey. For them, the great opportunity presented by the civil war in Syria is the possibility of installing a friendly Sunni government next door to Iraq, and Turkey appears to be operating according to the same calculus. Thus it is not necessarily democracy that Turkey is looking to see flower in Syria, but simply another Sunni state, since a democratic Syria is assuredly not something that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are terribly interested in midwifing. It is also the case that there are legitimate worries over Sunni extremists with al-Qaida links being involved with the FSA, and yet Turkey appears to be moving ahead full bore. If Turkey were thinking more strategically and in the long term, it would not only be concerned about these elements within the FSA but would also think about how its rhetoric on democracy in the Middle East can be squared with supporting any Sunni movement that emerges, no matter how undemocratic or unsavory. Is becoming a cheerleader and patron of any Sunni group in a bid to be seen as the regional Sunni leader really a smarter longterm plan than being the promoter of democracy in the region? I don’t think that it is, particularly given the better street cred on the issue that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have, but this seems to be a policy born out of a desperate moment rather than a well thought out plan.
Exhibit B is what’s going on right now in Şemdinli, where the Turkish army is pounding the PKK while taking casualties of its own. Turkey rightly has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to PKK terrorism – although I would be curious to see Ankara’s reaction if the IDF blocked off part of the West Bank to journalists and all non-residents, refused to let anyone in or out, destroyed stores of food and medicine, and amid reports of hundreds of people being killed asked everyone to just trust that it was killing terrorists solely and leaving civilians alone – but killing PKK terrorists is not in itself a lasting solution to the Kurdish issue. I have written about this at length on numerous occasions so I don’t need to do so again and sound like a broken record, but the bottom line is that a political, rather than military, solution is needed, and Ankara appears to be farther away than ever from coming up with one. It does not have a longterm vision, and is just lurching from military operation to military operation, going after the PKK strongholds and warning the PYD about what will happen should it provide safe havens to the PKK in Syria. This simply is not a winning strategy for putting the Kurdish/PKK issue to bed once and all, and is instead just a series of temporary “solutions” that will exacerbate things over the years to come. I don’t mean to suggest that Turkey should not be working to eradicate the PKK, but it only makes sense to try doing so in concert with a political solution, since otherwise the government and military are playing whack-a-mole every spring and summer.
In short, Turkey needs to figure out what it wants to do over the next decade rather than coming up with things on the fly. Does it want to be at the vanguard of democratic movements in the Middle East? Does it want to project virtuous power? Does it want to try and return to a zero problems with neighbors stance? Does it want to be seen as the leader of the Sunni states? Is preventing Kurdish autonomy in Syria and in its own southeast a concern that overrides every other policy goal? Some of these things overlap and others are mutually exclusive, but they cannot all exist in concert. Turkey needs to pick a direction and figure out how best to implement its aims, rather than rushing into things head on before thinking through the consequences.
July 27, 2012 § 1 Comment
Turkey is suddenly gearing up to face what might be the biggest foreign policy challenge the AKP has faced in its decade in government, which is the emergence of an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan. As Assad’s forces pull back and retrench, they have left the Kurdish areas of northern Syria in the hands of the PYD, which is the Syrian counterpart to the PKK, and all of a sudden Turkey is facing the prospect of a Syrian Kurdish state right on its border. This has caused enormous angst in Ankara, with the prime minister threatening to invade Syria in order to prevent the PYD from controlling its own swath of territory. In addition, it seems as if the time and effort spent courting Massoud Barzani has backfired, as he was responsible for getting the PYD to join the Kurdish National Council and present a unified Kurdish front and has subsequently allowed the PYD to train in Iraqi Kurdistan. All of this, of course, terrifies Ankara since it raises the specter of a mass movement on the part of Turkish Kurds to have their own autonomous region as well once they see independent Kurdish governments in northern Iraq and northern Syria. Consequently, Ahmet Davutoğlu is slated to visit Erbil next week to express his displeasure with Barzani and make Turkey’s concerns clear.
All of this comes at the worst possible time given the way in which Erdoğan has been dealing with Turkey’s Kurdish situation. Turkish Kurds are restive following the cessation of the AKP’s Kurdish opening, and as Aliza Marcus pointed out last week, Erdoğan has directed his energy at denying the existence of Kurdish nationalism and ignoring Kurdish concerns. Rumors have the AKP making common cause with the nationalist MHP in order to sidestep the Kurdish issue in the new constitution, and the government has continued arresting and trying people for alleged links to the PKK, including 46 lawyers earlier this month. In short, despite the obvious benefits that would have come with a gentler touch, the very recent strategy has been all sticks and no carrots when it comes to dealing with the Kurdish population, so the developments in Syria are even more worrisome for the government than they otherwise would be.
It must also be noted that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had no inkling that this was coming and appear to have no good strategy to deal with it. The assumption appeared to be that because the Syrian National Council is led by a Syrian Kurd, that would be good enough and the PYD would not seek to carve out its own autonomous sphere, which was naive at best. The two seem to have trusted that their zero problems with neighbors strategy with Barzani would hold, but much as this outdated policy imploded with regard to Assad, Barzani seems to be resistant to Ankara’s charms as well. So Turkey is left with a situation where it is madly rushing tanks and missile batteries to the border and threatening to invade and even to create a buffer zone, but we have seen this play before and it turned out to be all bark and no bite. While the PKK issue inserts a new variable into the equation, the fact remains that the PYD has joined hands with Barzani and the Kurds of northern Iraq, which makes military action against them far more risky than it previously was. Turkey has been reluctant to send its forces into Syria alone and has avoided doing so at all costs (including after its plane was shot down) up until this point, and nothing has altered that equation. There also still doesn’t appear to be a huge appetite among the Turkish public for an invasion of Syria and all that it will entail, and while the MHP might be chomping at the bit to take it to the Kurds once and for all, that isn’t enough to make armed conflict a foregone conclusion. The greater likelihood is that this is one big show designed to appeal to popular nationalist impulses and that the tough talk is being driven by domestic politics. The problem with making a lot of noise about the PYD is that Turkey risks being the boy who cried wolf if it blusters without doing anything yet again, which can have real world consequences. Threats are only effective if they are considered to be credible, and talking tough without actually taking action risks emboldening the PYD and the PKK and destroying any deterrence that Turkey has established. By taking such a hard rhetorical line, Turkey is risking its long term foreign policy and security goals unless it is prepared to follow through, and the evidence suggests that it is not ready to do so.
In short, Turkey is in a no-win situation after being completely blindsided, and it can only hope that moving troops and tanks to the border in a show of force will be threatening enough to keep things quiet and that the PYD will keep its focus on getting rid of Assad rather than stirring up trouble for Turkey and openly aligning with the PKK. In any event, going after the PYD would not solve much of anything anyway, since that is simply fighting the side effects rather than the disease. If Turkey wants to keep its Kurdish population happy and part of Turkey, Erdoğan is going to have to change his tune very quickly and come to the realization that eliminating the PKK, PYD, and all other Kurdish terrorist groups is not going to address the real issue of Kurdish disenchantment within his own borders. A military solution might be attractive, but political problems require political solutions.
July 24, 2012 § 3 Comments
Today’s post is going to be a departure from my usual fare, but it’s an issue I have been thinking about lately so I figured I’d muse about it. There is a debate currently taking place among policymakers and security analysts over whether to arm the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups in an effort to bring down the Assad government. While there have been reports that Turkey and Sunni Arab states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been doing so, the United States has so far been resistant despite criticism from John McCain – who yesterday, in response to a question asking if we should be arming the rebels, flippantly said, “Sure, why not?” – and others. The U.S. is reluctant to do so primarily because we don’t know precisely who the rebels are and there are reports that the rebels are being supported by al-Qaida, which makes arming them a dangerous proposition. The decision not to arm the rebels is being driven by the specifics of the situation in Syria, but I think there is a bigger picture question that should precede it, which is whether arming rebels is ever a good idea in any situation.
Looking at the U.S. history of arming rebel groups reveals some major long term strategic blunders. The most prominent one was the effort to arm the Afghani mujahideen in the 1980s in a bid to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. This policy seemed like a smart one at the time, at it was undoubtedly successful in carrying out its immediate objective, as the Soviet Union suffered enormous losses in Afghanistan and ultimately pulled out, which was one of many contributing factors to its ultimate demise and the end of the Cold War. In hindsight, however, arming the mujahideen caused enormous blowback for the U.S., since the weapons supplied by the U.S. were ultimately turned on U.S. and NATO troops years later and the arms and training indirectly benefited al-Qaida and the Taliban down the road. All you have to do is read the very first chapter of Steve Coll’s excellent book Ghost Wars, in which the CIA is running around desperately trying to buy back all the Stinger missiles that it handed out in Afghanistan 15 years earlier so that they aren’t turned on American planes, so see why the policy was highly problematic. In other examples, arming and training rebels in South and Central America ultimately led to death squads or brutal military dictatorships in places like Honduras, Nicaragua, and Chile, and did not create stability or end the bloodshed but rather extended it.
I asked the question on Twitter yesterday whether there is an instance in which arming rebels did not lead to terrible unintended consequences down the road, and the two answers people collectively came up with were the French supplying weapons to the colonists during the American Revolution and the arming of the French Resistance and other partisan groups in Nazi-occupied Europe. A few people suggested Libya as a positive example, but it is way too soon to tell what the long term consequences there will be. Neither of the two historical examples is particularly encouraging given that one happened 250 years ago and involved no weapons more powerful than muskets, and the other was a much smaller scale and less organized effort to arm rebels who were also engaged in many other resistance activities other than fighting. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the Syrian rebels should under no circumstances be armed or provided with support. More importantly, I am absolutely not suggesting that the world should just sit back and watch Assad massacre more Syrians in an effort to stabilize the country and end the bloodshed as quickly as possible, since that is not a viable or ethical solution. What I am suggesting is that before people rush to arm the Syrian rebels, there should be a real conversation about what happens the day after the immediate goals are achieved. Where do those arms go next and what will they be used for? What can we learn from previous historical examples that will help us manage the unintended consequences that accrue from arming rebel groups? Given what we know happens when a country in the midst of a civil war is flooded with more weapons, is there a better option and should active outside intervention be rethought? I would like to hear more discussion that focuses on what happens once the conflict ends in addition to the current discussion about the easiest and least short term costly way to remove Assad from power.
July 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Another Friday, another gallimaufry post. This one is going to be even more all over the map than the last one since I read a more diverse group of interesting stories and essays in the last few days that all deserve some mention.
First, it was good to see the Turkish Foreign Ministry speak out against the Bulgaria bombing yesterday, using the phrase “crime against humanity” and strongly condemning the terrorist attack. Turkey has often gone out of its way to note when Palestinian civilians are killed and drawn charges of displaying a double standard when Israelis are killed, and this strongly worded statement is a positive step in blunting that criticism. Matan Lurey had pointed out that Turkey was initially quiet and argued that a statement from Turkey would be important in demonstrating that Israeli-Turkish relations were not at the point of being unsalvageable, so I’m glad that Turkey came through in a forthrightly unambiguous way.
Moving from condemnation of one kind to condemnation of another, Tablet published an essay this week by Anna Breslaw in which she tried to write cogently about the television show Breaking Bad by expressing her disgust for Holocaust survivors. For a representative sample of how Breslaw thinks, try this:
I had the gut instinct that these [Holocaust survivors] were villains masquerading as victims who, solely by virtue of surviving (very likely by any means necessary), felt that they had earned the right to be heroes, their basic, animal self-interest dressed up with glorified phrases like “triumph of the human spirit.”
I wondered if anyone had alerted Hitler that in the event that the final solution didn’t pan out, only the handful of Jews who actually fulfilled the stereotype of the Judenscheisse (because every group has a few) would remain to carry on the Jewish race—conniving, indestructible, taking and taking.
After the altogether justified uproar that Tablet, a Jewish outlet, would publish such anti-Semitic drivel, editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse issued a clarification that was certainly not an apology or even arguably an acknowledgement that the essay was inappropriate on many levels, beginning with the blatant anti-Jewish bigotry and ending with the fact that concentration camp survivors were used as an analogy for a fictional drug dealing murderer. Readers who know me outside of this blog (or who have engaged with me on Twitter) will be aware that I am a free speech absolutist and that I believe in every situation that the answer to objectionable speech is more speech. If you don’t like an argument that someone has made, the proper response is not to censor them or shout them down but to counter with a better and more convincing argument. Breslaw is entitled to her own warped and disturbing opinions and she should be allowed to air them in any venue that is willing to print them. The question I have is whether Tablet, an outlet that describes itself as one for “Jewish news, ideas, and culture” should be that venue. There is a Jewish tendency to push the bounds of discourse – after all, the site that is the best known clearinghouse for hateful screeds against both Jews and Israel is run by Philip Weiss – and that is one of the reasons that Judaism is such an intellectually vibrant tradition, but I don’t quite think it is Tablet’s role to be publicizing frivolous attacks on Holocaust survivors that assail them for the crime of not dying in a gas chamber at the hands of Nazis. If Tablet disagrees and thinks that this is precisely the role that Tablet should be playing, it should come out and say so clearly and forthrightly.
While Tablet provided a terrible example of how to use a personal narrative to make a larger point, my friend Steven Cook provided a great one with his reflections on the recently departed Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Steven writes about the meetings he had over the years with Suleiman, and points out that the spymaster was so blinded by his own conceit that he himself was responsible for Egypt’s stability and could control events that he never saw the revolution coming or conceived of the possibility that the Tahrir uprising would lead to Mubarak’s ouster. The regime’s thinking, as personified by Suleiman, was way behind the thinking of Egyptians in the streets and even of foreign governments, who saw the writing on the wall before Mubarak actually stepped down, and it had real consequences as it drove the Egyptian government’s actions. This is a useful reminder that in many cases we have no real idea what authoritarian leaders are thinking or how they perceive various actions, and the net result is that while actors may intend to convey a certain message, the intended target’s takeaway might be something completely different. We assume that encircling Iran, both literally with warships and figuratively with sanctions, will convey Western seriousness about dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, but Tehran might very well be hearing the message that because no military strike has happened yet that this is all a bluff. Similarly, just because the world is warning Bashar al-Assad about the dire consequences of using chemical weapons does not forestall their use, since Assad might assume that the chances of him hanging on now are remote and that deploying chemical weapons is the best remaining path to staying in power. Just because we assume that cues are universal and will lead to what we view to be rational behavior does not mean that rationality is a fixed variable (paging Kenneth Waltz).
Finally, and on a lighter note, one of my absolute obsessions is space. If I had to choose between catching a Red Sox game at Fenway or spending the day at the Hayden Planetarium, it would be a genuinely tough decision. One of my two or three biggest regrets in life is that I was never good enough at math or science to be an astrophysicist (one of my two A+ grades in college was Astronomy, and that was relatively elementary stuff but the math still killed me), and I am constantly on the hunt for things to read or watch about the latest discoveries in astrophysics that are accessible to a non-expert audience (NOVA on PBS is a great example). If I could meet any one person, it would hands down be Neil DeGrasse Tyson. So I was intrigued when I read this week that space does not smell like what I had imagined. I always envisioned space to be the ultimate example of fresh air – cool, crisp, the way it smells on a clear night in northern New Hampshire. Turns out that space smells like a scrap metal yard or a welding plant. Kind of makes sense when you think about all of the massive dust clouds and stars burning up at unimaginable heat, but who knew?
July 19, 2012 § 3 Comments
With the killing yesterday of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle of defense officials, most experts appear to agree that this marks the beginning of the endgame phase for the Assad regime, although how long this phase will last is anyone’s guess. Assad is not going to go quietly and there is bound to be a lot of violence and bloodshed ahead, but given yesterday’s blow to the regime’s top leadership and the fighting in Damascus, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which Assad ultimately quells the opposition and rules a unitary Syria again. This has left the most interested outside parties struggling with how to respond, and the new situation is a good illustration of why, as I wrote a month ago, Syria was never going to be the issue that forced a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement (despite the fact that it would be helpful if the two coordinated on their response).
At the moment, both countries have very different concerns. Israel’s most pressing worry is that Assad will use chemical weapons against Israel in a last gasp effort to rally Syrians around Syrian nationalism and distract from the massacres of his people that he has been carrying out, or alternatively that chemical weapons will be passed to Hizballah. The problem is that Israel is not in a position to do anything about it because attacking chemical weapons plants and storage depots will provide Assad an opportunity to marshal public opinion behind him against the Israeli enemy or the pretext to then retaliate by launching missiles at Israeli cities. Consequently, Israel is left to choose between a bevy of bad and worse options, and is thus in the awkward position of being somewhat wary about Assad’s departure. If it can be done in a controlled way, then Israel can sleep a lot more quietly at night, but that is unlikely to happen. While there is no doubt that Jerusalem does not want to keep watching Assad massacre Syrians, its involvement in pushing him out the door has to be minimal and the consequences of his downfall, direct and indirect, pose numerous security problems.
Turkey, on the other hand, is not exposed to the same risks as Israel, and thus its policy preferences are different. Ankara has a good relationship with the Syrian opposition and has been indirectly supporting them, and has placed itself in an optimal position for when Assad is finally removed. Turkey has zero ambivalence about Assad at this point and wants him gone at all costs, but unlike Israel, Turkey does not face the same dangers that might accrue from Assad leaving. Turkey will not be a target of Syrian chemical weapons, nor will it be facing down Hizballah, and so it has little to fear from the messy consequences of Assad’s downfall (the PKK is not in the chemical weapons market). Turkey wants to see as much pressure on Assad as can be brought to bear, whether it is from outside forces or an Islamist opposition, and it needs the Syrian civil war to end as quickly as possible so as to staunch the flow of refugees over the Turkish border.
You can see then how Syria might actually end up dividing Israel and Turkey even further rather than bringing them closer together. Let’s say Israel ultimately decides that it cannot live with the possibility of chemical weapons being out there and it destroys the Syrian facilities, which in turn allows Assad to get his officers and people to rally around the flag. In this scenario, Turkey will be apoplectic since this hypothetical Israeli action would have strengthened Assad and undermined the opposition, and prolonged the conflict in Syria. Israel, on the other hand, will have justifiably acted to neutralize a very real threat, and will not be amenable to listening to Turkish arguments on the issue. Relatedly, if Turkey actively steps in to broker a solution or steps up its efforts to arm the Syrian opposition rebel groups, and Assad or Hizballah attack Israel as a consequence, Israel will be unsparing in its criticism of Turkey. The bottom line here is that Israel and Turkey both do not like what they see going down in Syria, but that does not mean that their interests perfectly coincide and it certainly does not mean that they see eye to eye on Syria in such a way as to force their reconciliation. Yesterday’s events only make these differences more stark rather than less so.
July 2, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Following a report in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday that the Turkish jet shot down by Syria was in Syrian airspace and that it was brought down by an anti-aircraft gun with a limited range of only 1 1/2 miles, Prime Minister Erdoğan went on the warpath yesterday, denying the WSJ report and blasting the opposition and the media at large. According to both Erdoğan and the Turkish military, the Turkish F4 Phantom was 13 miles off the Syrian coast and brought down by a surface to air missile. From a foreign policy perspective it isn’t going to matter whether the plane is dredged up in international waters or Syrian waters, or whether it has small anti-aircraft gun perforations in its side or a gaping missile hole when/if it is found. I don’t tend to believe any claims made by Syria, and that goes double for Syrian claims supported by their friends the Russians, but none of this really makes any difference because Turkey isn’t going to war with Syria. The reason it matters where the plane was shot down is because it has the potential to rattle Turkish domestic politics and harm the AKP if Erdoğan’s claims turn out not be true.
Even by Erdoğan’s standards, Sunday’s performance was a doozy. Like he did in May over the WSJ’s Uludere report, Erdoğan once again claimed that the paper was printing lies in order to influence the U.S. presidential election and went after Turkish media outlets for accepting a foreign paper’s word over that of the Turkish military and Turkish Foreign Ministry. Newspapers that translated or relayed the WSJ report were deemed to be “following the path of the cowardly” and the PM attacked CHP opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as standing “shoulder to shoulder with Israel’s values and the Baath regime” for not being supportive enough of the official government position (never mind that last week Kılıçdaroğlu was being criticized by members of his own party for being too supportive of the government). As usual, Erdoğan brought all the subtlety of a jackhammer to his fight with the opposition and the media.
The problem is that by doing so, Erdoğan has really raised the stakes in a situation that could very well backfire on him in a bad way. When he has savaged the opposition or the media in the past, it has not been over the reporting of facts that might turn out the other way. In this case, Erdoğan is banking on his version of events being the right one, and given the ambiguity that exists and the fact that the plane hasn’t yet been found, he might be dead wrong without even knowing it. I don’t think that Erdoğan is in any way lying since I am sure he believes the facts as he laid them out, but there is enough evidence out there – between the WSJ report, eyewitness accounts of the Turkish plane flying at low altitude, and the fact that it was a surveillance plane and was acknowledged even by Turkey to have been flying in Syrian airspace at some point – to suggest that the plane may have been brought down in Syrian territory. If this turns out to be true and Erdoğan is wrong, then his credibility will be damaged in a big way, and it will be tougher for him to cow the media and the opposition going forward by using his well worn scorched earth rhetorical tactics. The next time he accuses Kılıçdaroğlu or any other opposition leader of being an Israeli or Syrian stooge, it will be a lot easier to shake off.
This also highlights the problem that exists when the government is perceived to be less than always truthful and has a reputation for anti-democratic behavior when it comes to the media. Thundering that the press should just trust the Foreign Ministry’s account and ignore any outside reports or evidence to the contrary does not exactly inspire confidence that you are telling the truth, or even that you are interested in it. The Turkish media has been engaging in a lot of self-censorship, and part of Erdoğan’s strategy is to intimidate them to continue to do so. If his claims turn out to be wrong in this case, it will be harder for the media to keep their mouths shut in the future, which will either lead to more open challenging of the official government story line or even more blatant anti-democratic behavior of the type outlined here. Either way, it’s not good for Erdoğan and the AKP, and so yesterday’s performance actually raised the stakes and increased the pressure on the government for the plane to be found where Ankara says it should be and with damage that could only be done by a missile. If not, Erdoğan has dug himself a hole from which he may find it difficult to climb out.