May 6, 2013 § 7 Comments
Israel’s massive strike on military targets near Damascus early Sunday morning paired with its earlier strike on surface-to-surface missiles at the airport on Friday that were presumably destined for transfer to Hizballah has reopened a furious debate in Washington over U.S. intervention in Syria. Proponents of intervention, such as Senator John McCain, are pointing to the seeming ease with which Israel has been able to hit Syrian targets as an argument that the U.S. should be intervening in Syria and at minimum setting up a no-fly zone. The logic employed is that if Israel can use American-made weapons to penetrate Syrian air defenses seemingly at will, it shows the ineptitude of Syrian air defenses and eliminates the argument that setting up a no-fly zone will be dangerous or stretch U.S. capabilities. I am certainly no expert on the relative efficacy of Syrian military capabilities so I will not deign to wade into the argument over whether or not the Syrian army would present a legitimate military threat to setting up a no-fly zone, although I am as confident as I can be that any Syrian air defenses, no matter how robust, aren’t anything that the U.S. military can’t handle. We are talking about the most formidable fighting force with the best technology in the history of mankind, and as Steven Cook has pointed out, the difference in U.S. military resources vs. Syrian military resources is laughable, so I don’t think anyone serious is making an argument about U.S. military capabilities in warning against setting up a no-fly zone. Rather, the opposition to a no-fly zone that centers on the dangers of maintaining one is concerned with the costs of doing so and not arguing that setting one up is an impossibility. In this vein, I’d like to make a few points on why what Israel has just done over the past few days holds very few lessons for a hypothetical U.S. intervention in the form of a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace.
First, the types of strikes are different. Israel has now conducted three one-off strikes in Syria since the conflict between Assad and the rebels began, and each has been an independent operation aimed at keeping what Israel terms “game changing” conventional weaponry out of Hizballah’s hands. A no-fly zone, in contrast, would consist of constant daily sorties along a predictable schedule and route. Dan Trombly this morning has done a much better job than I could ever hope to do of laying out exactly what a sustained no-fly zone would entail so rather than attempting to get into the specifics of it, just go and read his post instead. That is not to say that the U.S. cannot do so; we maintained a no-fly zone over Iraq for more than a decade. My point is that holding up three Israeli strikes, one of which happened in January and two of which happened two days apart last week, as definitive proof that a Syrian no-fly zone would present absolutely no logistical quandaries seems premature to me.
Furthermore, it is unclear whether Israel even penetrated Syrian airspace. The strike on the airport on Friday apparently took place from Lebanese territory with guided missiles that can skim along the ground for miles after being fired before reaching their intended to target, so the question of whether Syrian air defenses presented a challenge or not is moot. As of this writing, I have not seen any definitive statement as to whether the much larger strike in the wee hours of Sunday morning also came from Lebanese airspace or not. Even if it did not, I would surmise that it took the Syrian regime by surprise given that Israel has not been conducting constant strikes in Syria by any means and that Israel had already struck targets two days before. In any event, assuming that Israeli planes flew over Syria for the second strike, a solitary sortie again does not provide the evidence needed to draw any firm conclusions about Syrian air defenses against a long-term no-fly zone.
Third, even if Israel did launch the second strike from Syria itself, keep in mind that Syria has a long history of not responding to Israeli incursions while not extending the same courtesy to other countries. Israel flew eight planes in and out of Syria to destroy its nuclear reactor and extract its commandos on the ground in September 2007 without a shot being fired. Israel also conducted a strike in Syria through Syrian airspace in January, as noted above, and possibly again this past weekend, all without running into any resistance at all. In contrast, Turkey had its F-4 downed over Syria last summer, and whether it was brought down by Syria or – as has been widely rumored – by a Russian anti-aircraft battery, the fact remains that Syria generally keeps its head down when Israel is involved. In fact, a former Syrian air force major now with the rebels has claimed that Syrian air defenses were actively ordered to stand down during the Israeli raid on the al-Kibbar reactor once the planes were detected and it became clear that it was an Israeli operation. The reason might be that Israel has a carefully cultivated reputation for responding to provocations with overwhelming and even disproportionate force, which smartly deters retaliatory action. If Syria thinks that Israel will bomb it back to the Stone Age if it shoots at Israeli planes, it has every reason to stand down. Indeed, if the reports of the massive explosions in Damascus on Sunday are to be believed, Israel is still making sure to employ its own version of shock and awe. I am not sure that the U.S. reputation in the region is quite the same as Israel’s, and so extrapolating from Syria’s turning a blind eye to Israeli incursions that it will also ignore sustained U.S. incursions is, in my view, a bridge too far.
Finally, and most importantly, Israel has a clearly defined and limited goal in mind when it strikes Syrian targets. As Brent Sasley emphasized today, Israel is engaging in finite operations specifically designed to avoid reprisals by only targeting a specific category of weaponry that is in danger of being transferred to outside parties. The U.S., on the other hand, is dealing with a very different kettle of fish. If the U.S. sets up a no-fly zone, what is the objective? Is it to remove Assad? Even the playing field to give the rebels a better chance? Protect civilians without putting our thumb on the scale on behalf of one side? Israel can more easily carry out its objectives in Syria because they are simple – prevent chemical weapons or new missile technology being given to Hizballah. The U.S.’s objectives will be murkier, particularly since President Obama’s “red line” comment was apparently unplanned. When you don’t have a sense of what exactly you hope to accomplish, nor how long it will actually take to accomplish this hazy objective, taking lessons from a country that has an actually clear red line and knows that it does not have to commit many resources to enforce it may not be the best idea. If we have learned anything from our excursion in Iraq, surely it should be that predictions of a cakewalk should be cast aside in favor of a strategy that hopes for the best and plans for the worst.
Again, none of this is to say that the U.S. is not up to the job, or that the Syrian military is an awesomely fearsome fighting force, or that our capabilities are anything short of allowing us to do pretty much whatever we set out to do. What I am saying is that pointing to what Israel has just done and using that as definitive proof of anything related to a potential U.S. no-fly zone is taking the wrong frame of reference as a lesson.
One last related note: to those who incessantly insist that Israel is of absolutely no strategic worth to American interests and is nothing but an albatross around the neck of the U.S., I’d submit that having the Israeli military around to prevent transfers of Iranian-furnished weapons to Hizballah and to make sure that Assad’s delivery systems for chemical weapons also stay right where they are, all while battlefield-testing American weapons in the process, is pretty useful right about now. Just sayin’…
February 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
Halil Karaveli has an op-ed in today’s New York Times with the title “Turkey, The Unhelpful Ally” and in it he argues that Turkey is acting at cross purposes to American goals in Syria by exacerbating civil strife in backing Sunni groups to the exclusion of others. Karaveli actually takes the argument even further and maintains that in not reining Turkey in, the U.S. risks having sectarian tensions blow up into a regional war. He thinks that the U.S. has empowered Turkey and encouraged it to behave as a Sunni power in order to confront Iranian interests, and that doing so is creating incentives for unhelpful behavior on Turkey’s part.
Karaveli is correct that Turkey’s actions are contributing to sectarian strife and he is accurately describing the effects of Turkey’s policy choices, but I don’t think Turkey’s intentions are quite so nefarious. It is true that Turkey’s foreign policy has tended toward boosting Sunni power, and I am sure that Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu harbor ambitions of being the great leader of the Sunni world, but what’s taking place in the Syrian context is something different. Other than Syrians themselves, Ankara wants Assad gone more than anyone, and it will do whatever it can to make that happen. In fact, the Turkish government so desperately wants to see Assad go that who or what replaces him has become a second order concern following the primary objective of just making sure that he is removed from power. To this end, Turkey did not back the Syrian National Council and now the Syrian National Coalition primarily because these groups are Sunni or Sunni-dominated, but because it was clear early on that they represented the best chance to remove Assad due to their strength, resources, organization and outside backing. That they are Sunni groups likely to act more favorably toward Turkey rather than Iran should they ultimately replace Assad is beneficial and part of the calculus, but it is not the only thing going on here.
Turkey is looking to back the group or groups best suited to overthrow the Syrian regime, and concern for a harmonious patchwork of Sunni and minority groups is not a priority at the moment because it is putting the cart before the horse. Karaveli writes that “the Turkish government has made no attempt to show sympathy for the fears of the country’s Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities. The Alawites and the Christians have backed the government in large numbers and fear retribution if Mr. Assad is toppled.” The minority groups in Syria are right to be concerned, but if this means that Turkey should drop its desire to see Assad go, it is simply not a reasonable suggestion given all of Turkey’s other interests. The aftermath of Assad’s fall, should it ever happen, is bound to be messy and it will be part of Turkey’s job as a responsible actor to exert its influence over Sunni groups to make sure that sectarian violence and retributions do not break out. None of that can happen though until Assad goes, and there does not seem to be a good way to get to that eventuality without backing the large Sunni opposition parties. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be negative externalities to Turkey’s policy, but I think Karaveli is downplaying the challenges Ankara is facing.
There is also the issue of Karaveli’s assertion that Turkey is behaving this way because of a rift with Iran. Yes, relations between Turkey and Iran are strained, but the idea that Turkey has decided to confront Iran in the same manner as the U.S. or the Gulf monarchies is not supported by the available evidence. Karaveli cites Turkey’s consent to deploying the NATO X-Band radar system on its territory, but Turkey ultimately had little choice in that matter if it wanted to remain in good standing with its fellow NATO countries, not to mention that the Turkish government went out of its way to assure that the radar would not be used as a way to protect Israel from any Iranian nuclear threat. Furthermore, Turkey has been helping Iran evade sanctions for months by using gold to buy Iranian natural gas and thereby get around the ban on financial transactions with Iranian banks. New sanctions aimed at just this activity have ground the creative evasion to a halt rather than a desire to confront Iran, and it is a curious assertion that the U.S. desire to pressure Iran has translated to Turkey and transformed its behavior in a negative way given Turkey’s cautious but non-hostile posture when it comes to Iran.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize Turkish behavior in the Syrian and Iranian spheres, but Karaveli should give Turkey a bit more breathing room than he does. Ankara’s motives are complex in this case, but there is no reason to believe that it does not genuinely want Assad gone for humanitarian, security, and stability reasons, rather than simply out of a desire to promote Sunni hegemony within Syria and the greater region.
February 4, 2013 § 8 Comments
Following Israel’s strike last week on a Syrian convoy carrying SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles that were presumed to be headed for Hizballah, my friend Aaron Stein pointed out the dilemma facing the Turkish government in formulating a response. On the one hand, Israel and Turkey have incentive to cooperate on Syria, but on the other hand an Israeli strike always has the potential to rally Assad’s forces or empower the most radical elements of the Syrian rebellion such as Jubhat al-Nusra. As Aaron laid out, the question facing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu was whether to keep quiet in recognition of this first dynamic or blast Israel in light of the second. Had I written about this last week, I would have added in another piece to this equation, which is that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu simply cannot help themselves from pouring gasoline on the fire when it comes to Israel and are incapable of acting prudently even when it is in their interest to do so. This is why my very first reaction to the news of the Israeli strike on the convoy was to wonder whether Erdoğan would manage to let this pass without comment. In this situation, the Israeli strike was contrary to the Turkish government’s oft-stated desire for a multilateral rather than unilateral solution in Syria, but the prospects of Assad being able to use an Israeli strike to win over the opposition to his side and contend that a united front is necessary to face the looming Zionist threat were always slim given how far down the rabbit hole Assad has gone. Furthermore, Israel’s strike was aimed at stopping the spread of weapons to Hizballah, which Turkey does not want to see happen either, so if there was any instance in which it made sense for Turkey to stay quiet, this was it.
Much like with Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza in November, Turkey initially had no response to the Israeli operation. Also much like with Operation Pillar of Cloud, this silence was short-lived. Over the weekend, Davutoğlu taunted Bashar al-Assad for not responding militarily to the Israeli raid, alleged that the reason for Syria’s lack of response must be because there is a secret agreement between Israel and Syria, and maintained that Turkey herself will stand up for Syria since it cannot stay quiet in the face of an Israeli attack on a Muslim country. Not to be left on the sidelines, Erdoğan called the strike an example of Israeli state terror, dubbed Israel a spoiled child, and tried to tie the raid to Israel’s conquering of the Golan Heights. So for those of you keeping score at home, Turkey wants to see Assad gone and has been trying for over a year to organize a U.S. or NATO-led attack on Syria in the form of a no-fly zone and furthermore has deployed Patriot missile batteries along its border with Syria in recognition of the military threat that exists, but it also is going to defend its friend Bashar from Israeli aggression and will not abide an attack on Syria and doesn’t really see why Israel has anything to worry about when it comes to Syrian military threats. The Turkish stance on this would be funny if it weren’t so downright absurd. For all of Davutoğlu’s reputation as a serious and deep thinker, when it comes to the subject of Israel he turns into a caricature.
There is another dynamic at work here, which is that Israel’s foray into Syrian airspace untouched is deeply embarrassing to Turkey. After Syria shot down Turkey’s F-4 last year, Turkey blustered and threatened and ultimately did nothing. Until the Patriot batteries arrived, Ankara was unable to prevent Syria from shelling over the border into Turkey. All the while the Turkish government played up Syrian air defense capabilities and the difficulty in deterring Syria from attacks. Yet Israel was able to fly jets into Syria, bomb a convoy, and fly back out untouched, either because the planes were undetected or because Syria is afraid of messing with Israel in a way that it is not when it comes to Turkey. This entire episode makes the political leadership in Ankara look skittish and overly cautious in comparison and illuminates the gaping chasm between the Israeli military and intelligence and the Turkish military and intelligence in terms of capabilities. Furthermore, Israel conducted the raid with the knowledge and likely complicity of the U.S., whereas Turkey’s repeated requests for action on Syria have fallen on mostly deaf American ears. By blasting Israel, Turkey is trying to overcome its own insecurities, but is instead serving to highlight them even further.
The Turkish government for whatever reason is incapable of rational and level-headed behavior when it comes to Israel. Instead, it reverts to all sorts of childish tactics; empty threats, bullying, ridiculous attempts at shaming, name calling, etc. when it could do a much better job by calmly assessing the situation, realizing that the Israeli raid benefits Turkey as well, and stop with the empty boasts of coming to Syria’s defense. Not only does nobody buy the act for a second, it makes Turkey’s own Syria policy more complicated and makes Erdoğan and Davutoğlu look small rather than like serious statesmen with aspirations of turning Turkey into a dominant regional power. Not to mention that by Davutoğlu’s standards, Turkey’s non-military response to Syria shooting down its plane means that Ankara and Damascus must have a secret deal in place, which is an issue fraught with danger for a government whose prime minister just a few short years ago was vacationing with the Assads and calling Bashar a brother.
December 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Following a meeting of foreign ministers yesterday, NATO gave its ok to deploy Patriot missile batteries to Turkey in order to guard against a missile attack emanating from Syria. While this is welcome news in Ankara, it is a move that Russia has been complaining about and trying to sandbag ever since Turkey made its initial request for Patriots last month. Russia’s concerns over deploying Patriots to the border with Syria are twofold and both fairly obvious. First, as Syria’s external patron, Russia wants to avoid intervention by any outside actors, and it has been afraid that sending Patriot missiles to Turkey is a precursor to wider action on the part of outside powers. Second, the fact that the Patriots are coming from NATO adds to Russian paranoia. NATO is and always has been a sore spot for Moscow, and understandably so. The organization that was formed during the Cold War as a way of containing the Soviet Union did not disband once the USSR broke apart and its raison d’être no longer existed, but actually expanded and in the process encircled Russia even more. Despite repeated American and Western assurances that this was not aimed at tamping down Russian power, Russia has never quite believed this version of events, and so it reflexively opposes any increased NATO presence in its backyard or in any situations in which it is intimately involved.
Nevertheless, following NATO’s decision to send Patriots to Turkey, Russia actually downplayed its criticism. At a press conference in Brussels after a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia did not object to the Patriot deployment but that it did not want the situation with Syria to escalate any further. Lavrov was clear that Russia differs with NATO on issues of missile defense, but Moscow has apparently decided not to take a hard stand in this particular instance. The reason for this is partly because NATO has made it abundantly clear that placing Patriots on the Syrian border is not in any way a harbinger of an eventual NATO intervention, but is rather a measure designed to placate and reassure a skittish Turkey. The Patriots have been programmed so that they can only intercept missiles crossing over into Turkish airspace and cannot cross over into Syrian territory preemptively. If it had not already been clear enough, the NATO foreign ministers issued a statement emphasizing that the Patriots would not be used offensively in any way and will not be linked to any theoretical no-fly zone. While Russia is still not thrilled with the development, the effort to reassure the Russians that the Patriot missiles do not herald Western states actively intervening on behalf of the rebels in the Syrian civil war seems to have paid off.
There is, however, another reason that Russia is all of a sudden displaying a more pliant side, and it has to do with Turkish energy demands. As sanctions have kicked in on Iranian oil, Turkey has been meeting its vast and ever growing energy needs with Iranian natural gas, and it has been buying that gas with gold in an effort to evade the ban on financial transactions with Iranian banks. In response to Turkey’s end around, the Senate is considering a new sanctions bill that would cover the sale of precious metals to Iran, and while Turkey insists that it will continue buying up to 90% of Iran’s natural gas exports, at some point the White House is going to be forced to take a tougher line with Turkey given the pressure from Congress over the issue. As I wrote back in April when looking at Turkey’s energy trade with Iran, Turkey’s biggest oil supplier is not Iran but Russia, and if Turkey is forced to look elsewhere for its natural gas needs, Russia is the logical partner. There are signs that Turkey is preparing for this very eventuality, as it has asked Russia to increase its natural gas sales to Turkey by 3 billion cubic meters per year, which does not entirely replace the 10 billion cubic meters per year that Turkey gets from Iran but significantly cuts into it. Russia wants Turkey to buy more of its gas at Iran’s expense, and this may partially explain Russia’s backing down from its strident stance on NATO deploying Patriot missiles in Turkey. Russia wants to keep Turkey as a happy client, and if placing some defensive missile batteries along the border with Syria are the price of doing business, Russia has concluded that the pros outweigh the cons.
October 16, 2012 § 1 Comment
There are many good reasons to support some form of international intervention in Syria. Among them are that Bashar al-Assad is indiscriminately killing and torturing his own people, there is an enormous refugee crisis that is only growing, and the chaos in Syria might very well ignite a larger regional war. These are all credible arguments that have been made by people I respect, and they lead to a healthy and informed debate about the right course of action. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor yesterday, however, Jorge Benitez made an argument for intervention in Syria that stretches the bounds of credulity.
Benitez claims that NATO is obligated to intervene in the conflict because Turkey has been attacked on two separate occasions – the shooting down of a Turkish reconnaissance plane in June and the shelling of Akçakale a couple of weeks ago – saying, “If NATO persists in offering only paper promises to Turkey, the perception that the alliance lacks the political will to back up allies even if they are attacked will be a major blow to NATO’s credibility.” The problem here is that the definition of “attack” is not as cut and dry as Benitez suggests. The details surrounding the downing of the Turkish F-4 in June are still hazy since it is not yet clear where or even how the jet was brought down, and in any event Turkey has admitted that the jet was at some point flying in Syrian airspace. The Akçakale shelling was certainly reprehensible and Turkey has every right to respond as it sees fit given that five Turkish civilians were killed by Syrian artillery fire, but it is also a fact that Syrian forces were not intentionally shelling Turkey but were aiming at rebel forces on the Syrian side of the border. None of this is meant to excuse Syria’s actions in any way; Turkey’s retaliatory shelling of Syrian positions has been absolutely legitimate and justified in my view. Has Turkey suffered an attack? Yup. But has Turkey suffered an intentional and purposeful attack from Syria to the level that should automatically trigger NATO intervention? That one, which is what Benitez is arguing, seems to me to be more of a stretch. I understand why Ankara wants firmer support from NATO than ineffective statements expressing strong condemnation of Syrian actions, but it is one thing to argue that NATO should be doing something and quite another to argue that NATO is obligated to be doing something. I don’t think that the situation supports this latter argument just yet.
Benitez does not advocate a full-scale NATO invasion of Syria, but rather suggests that NATO should deploy AWACS early warning aircraft and/or a rapid reaction force to the Syrian-Turkish border, and argues that doing so would deescalate any confrontation between Turkey and Syria. The logic here appears suspect to me as well. Again, we can have a serious debate over whether NATO should be doing more to help one of its members, and whether the absence of any serious action on Turkey’s behalf puts the future of the alliance in danger. But let’s also not kid ourselves – getting NATO aircraft and soldiers involved is not going to deescalate anything. In fact, it will almost certainly have the exact opposite effect, which is why Turkey is trying its hardest to get a NATO commitment, since the Turkish government does not want to deescalate things but wants to set a series of events in motion that will lead to Assad’s ouster. A NATO presence along the border will not lead Syria to cease attacking rebel positions, but will act as a tripwire for greater NATO involvement and eventually active intervention in Syria. I am open to a wide variety of arguments about why NATO, the UN, or the U.S. should be intervening alongside Turkey in Syria, but they should at least be credibly honest arguments rather than attempts at Jedi mind tricks.
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.
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.
August 3, 2012 § 2 Comments
For those who haven’t been paying attention, President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan spoke on the phone on Monday about the situation in Syria, but apparently far more newsworthy is the fact that, as seen in this photo, Obama was holding a baseball bat during their conversation. This has caused an uproar, with reporters asking White House press secretary Jay Carney whether there is a hidden meaning or symbolic message to be gleaned from the fact that Obama had what I assume is a Louisville Slugger in his hand. A columnist in the Asia Times summed up the message that Turks must have taken away from the picture, writing that “the Turks could see any number of reasons: Obama was likely grandstanding as a tough world leader; possibly, threatening Bashar; maybe, impressing Israel and Saudi Arabia – or, Iran and Russia. But they calmly concluded that Obama was conveying a blunt message to Erdogan to speed up the ‘regime change’ in Syria: ‘Whack Bashar, ErdoganBey’.” In fact, the baseball bat aroused so many questions in Turkey that the White House was forced to issue a statement clarifying that the sole purpose of posting the picture online was highlight the close relationship between Obama and Erdoğan.
While this appears to be nothing more than a silly incident, it actually holds some interesting lessons for the U.S.-Turkey relationship. To my American eyes, it is pretty obvious what is going on here; the administration released a photo during an election season that portrays Obama as a regular guy. He is holding a baseball bat, which shows that he is a baseball fan/sports aficionado, and it also shows him in a casual pose. A lot of times when I am working, I have a ball in my hand that I throw up and down since it helps me think, and if Obama has a similar tic, it helps voters identify with him, as silly and superficial as that may be. Had the caption on the photo informed us that Obama was talking on the phone to Harry Reid, nobody would have given it a second glance.
Obama wasn’t talking to Harry Reid though, which makes all the difference and is why it was foolish for the White House to send the photo out. To Turkish eyes, the fact that Obama was holding a bat while talking to Erdoğan about Syria might be wrought with symbolism and suggest that Obama is conveying the message to Erdoğan to get tougher with Bashar al-Assad. More likely, and quite understandably from the Turkish point of view, Obama holding a bat while talking to the Turkish prime minister is viewed as being disrespectful, and it plays on longstanding Turkish fears that the U.S. does not take Turkey seriously or view Turkey as an equal. The casual message that the White House wants to send to American voters conveys a very different and more damaging message to the Turks, and after nearly four years in office, the White House needs to be more aware of this type of stuff. The fact that the Turkish opposition saw the political utility in bringing up the bat incident is indicative that the whole thing is not just seen as a throwaway photo, but that it plays on fears that the U.S. essentially uses Turkey when it is convenient but does not accord Turkey the respect that it deserves. So in the future, the U.S. needs to be more mindful that the way things play here is not necessarily the way things play abroad, and that is particularly true when the political imagery involves a foreign country. As for Turkey? Well, sometimes a bat is just a bat.