October 11, 2012 § 7 Comments
Robert Wright has been keeping an eye on developments between Turkey and Syria, and unlike me, he thinks there is at least a 50/50 chance that the two countries end up going to war. Wright’s argument boils down to the fact that events on the ground are rapidly spinning out of both Turkey’s and Syria’s control and Turkey is facing serious refugee and Kurdish problems, so that “both of these issues–refugees and Kurdish nationalism–could lead Turkey to conclude that the sooner the Syrian civil war ends, the better.” In addition, Wright believes that the U.S. and NATO may get involved, and that the Turkish-Syrian border is not going to quiet down since Syria cannot afford to ignore it and because Turkey is basically poking Syria in the eye by arming the rebels.
With one exception (the point about the U.S. and NATO), all of these things are arguably correct to some degree, but Wright is overlooking a bunch of other factors that either mitigate or cancel out completely the variables that he has pointed to as reasons a full blown war may happen. First and most importantly is that Turkey does not necessarily have the ability to intervene in Syria in such a way as to end the civil war. As friends of O&Z (and superb guest posters) Aaron Stein and Dov Friedman persuasively argued in the National Interest yesterday, Turkey’s military options in Syria are actually quite limited. Ankara does not have the intelligence capability to carry out extensive target selection, its air force faces a challenge in the face of Syrian air defenses, and its months-long bluster has not been backed by equivalent action, destroying its ability to use credible threats to deter Syrian provocation. In short, Turkey has been exposed as a paper tiger when it comes to Syria. Despite General Özel’s constant tours of the Syrian border and the military buildup, this appears to be similar to what Turkey did following the downing of its F-4 during the summer, when it made a show of force but ultimately did not use it. This is the double secret probation strategy, in which Turkey keeps on ramping up the threats to punish Syria to the point of absurdity. Wright’s argument is that Turkey will end up intervening in Syria in order to put a swift end to the civil war, but the inconvenient reality here is that Turkey might not have the capability to do so, which has obviously been affecting Ankara’s calculus this whole time. In addition, even if Turkey did have the capability to step in and put an end to the sectarian fighting in Syria, Wright assumes that this would put a damper on Kurdish nationalism, but in fact it might very well have precisely the opposite effect. Once the Assad regime falls, the PYD and other Syrian Kurdish groups are likely to try and carve out their own autonomous sphere within Syria, and Turkish intervention on the side of the rebels could accelerate this process.
Wright’s argument about NATO arrives at a similar dead end. He writes that ”helping fight it [the Syrian civil war] could help end it–especially if Turkey’s fellow members of NATO help out. Speaking of NATO: The fact that a Turkish-Syrian war could draw America into the conflict will make such a war more attractive to some backers of American intervention.” There is, however, no way that NATO is going to get drawn into this war. There is zero appetite for it among NATO countries not named Turkey, and while NATO may be willing to convene an Article 4 meeting any time Turkey requests one and issue strongly worded condemnations of Syria, that is as far as NATO is going to go. The same goes double for the U.S., which is also going to sit this one out no matter how much Turkey begs and pleads. Wright is buying into the Turkish pipe dream that an international coalition is eventually going to be shamed into intervening in Syria, but I don’t see any plausible way that this happens.
Finally there is Wright’s point about the shelling along the Syrian border and Turkey already essentially fighting a war against Syria by arming and training the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups. The tit-for-tat shelling has been going on now for a week, yet despite this Syria has shown no inclination to ramp up its military activity, and Turkey has been making a big show of force while essentially standing pat. Wright asks, “ If Syria doesn’t want a war, and Syrian shells that fall on the Turkish side of the border could start a war, why doesn’t Syria quit firing shells anywhere near the border?…The answer is simple: The Syrian regime is fighting for its life, and along the Turkish-Syrian border lies the lifeline of its enemy.” There is another simple calculation in play here as well though, which is that Syria is not targeting Turkey with its shelling but is targeting the rebels on its own side of the border, and Syria knows that Turkey knows this too. Intervening in Syria is a potential nightmare for the Turkish army given the sectarian issues and the fact that Turkey will be fending off attacks from not only the Syrian army but Kurdish fighters well. When Syrian artillery misses, as it is bound to do, and kills Turkish civilians, then Turkey is forced to respond, but Turkey does not want to go into Syria on its own and will do nearly anything to avoid such an outcome. By the same token, Turkey has been arming rebel groups now for months, yet Syria is not deliberately shelling Turkish military positions because it too does not want to draw the Turkish military across the border. I get that there is a logic of unintended consequences at work here with the potential to spiral into a war, but Wright’s arguments for how this will happen ignore that there is a very powerful set of incentives on both sides to avoid such an outcome.
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 4, 2012 § 1 Comment
Dov Friedman (whose previous guest post can be found here) is taking over the reins of O&Z once again for an insightful counterfactual of what might have been had Shaul Mofaz used his time in the Israeli coalition to mend ties with Turkey. Dov thinks that Israel missed a golden opportunity with the release of the Lindenstrauss Report, and here’s why:
Though few realized it at the time, the day Israeli Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss released his highly critical report detailing the government’s mishandling of the Mavi Marmara raid—June 13th of this year—doubled as the best chance for Israel and Turkey to repair the countries’ damaged relations. Only four weeks prior, Shaul Mofaz had led Kadima into Netanyahu’s government. The expanded coalition had weakened the power of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a chief opponent of an Israeli apology. The Lindenstrauss Report revealed new information that would have made an apology credible—and restored relations possible. But Netanyahu dismissed the report, the public discourse faded, and a key opportunity was missed, the effects of which are still being felt by Israel—and by Turkey.
Upon the grand coalition’s forming, analysts offered various explanations for the surprise Netanyahu-Mofaz partnership. Many observers—including Jeffrey Goldberg, Amir Oren of Ha’aretz, and Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin—viewed the deal as increasing the likelihood of an Iran strike. David Horovitz argued optimistically that Netanyahu could use the coalition to advance talks with the Palestinians. Here at O&Z, Michael saw the deal as motivated by domestic issues, specifically the unconstitutional Tal Law.
Frozen relations with Turkey were an afterthought. The most recent attempt to broker a deal between the recalcitrant sides had dissolved the previous summer. The Lindenstrauss Report created an opening. Netanyahu was still motivated to protect his expanded coalition, and Likud-Kadima unity on an apology could marginalize radical coalition opponents.
Yet, Mofaz exerted no pressure to reengage Turkey. Turkey had spent the previous six months going out of its way to needle Israel, reminding it that the freeze had costs. In February, Turkey demanded that Israel not receive data from the NATO missile defense system housed by Turkey. In late April, Turkey rejected Israel’s participation in NATO’s May summit in Chicago. Unquestionably, rapprochement with Turkey would eliminate a considerable—and unnecessary—headache for Israel.
If Mofaz had pressured Netanyahu to resume negotiations with Turkey, the outlines of a deal were clear. Netanyahu’s government would have said that in light of its own internal report, Israel regretted the poor planning and lack of preparation that contributed to the loss of life, and it recognizes that the circumstances could have—and should have—been prevented. Turkey could then have returned its ambassador and pledged aid ships to Gaza—ships that would conveniently dock in Ashqelon, tacitly reaffirming Israel’s security interest in managing the flow of aid into the Strip.
Of course, that deal never materialized. Not three months after entering the coalition, Mofaz led Kadima out ashen-faced. Netanyahu balked at confronting the religious parties over the Tal Law, refusing to implement Yohanan Plesner’s recommendations for haredi national service. Mofaz—having cried wolf one too many times—had no appealing options.
While analysis of the collapse focused on the domestic political implications, it overlooked lost international opportunities. Undoubtedly, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu will seek—and relish—further opportunities to poke Israel in the eye. Israel wisely refrains from comment, but that hardly means it doesn’t smart from the blows. Turkey is still a NATO member, and it can create problems for Israel indefinitely.
However, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu err if they believe the standoff has not detrimentally affected Turkey. If the Netanyahu-Mofaz coalition and Turkey had hammered out a deal, the downed Turkish F-4 jet may never have flown. As friend of O&Z Aaron Stein noted in an incisive piece in World Politics Review, Turkey’s intelligence capabilities are decidedly limited. Israel’s are significantly less so. Israel maintains a fleet of satellites with broad intelligence-gathering capabilities. The Mossad is active in Syria, and the IDF has experience flying aircraft in and out unscathed.
The theory prevails that Turkey’s jet was testing Syria’s air defenses. One need not theorize that Turkey was out of its depth. If Israel and Turkey had ended their superficial feud, Turkey’s pilots might never have been asked to broach Syrian airspace.
Israel has suffered publicly from the downgraded relationship; however, Turkey has lost out as well, albeit less obviously. Because trade relations between the countries remain strong, neither has felt pressure to alter the status quo. Nevertheless, the sides continue missing opportunities to collaborate to mutual benefit. This alternate history merely illustrates that the full extent of the shared loss may be continually underestimated.
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.
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.
June 26, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Up until this week, Turkey was not having much success with its Syria policy. Ankara made some noise about establishing a buffer zone inside of Syria in order to alleviate the problem of refugees streaming across its border, but nobody took that suggestion seriously since it was clear that Turkey was not going to invade Syria in order to make such a move happen. When Syrian forces shot across the border in April, Turkey threatened to invoke NATO Article 5, but that too was an idle threat. Assad had misled Erdoğan a number of times about his willingness to reform and stop killing civilians, and was turning a blind eye, if not actively aiding, the PKK’s presence in Syria. Turkey wanted Assad gone, but was not having any success convincing the international community to take action and did not want to step into the Syrian morass alone.
Then Syria shot down the Turkish plane on Friday, and rather than jump headlong into a retaliatory strike, Ankara has been coolly assessing its options and in the span of four days has made more progress on its goals on Syria than it had in the previous 12 months combined. By turning this into a NATO Article 4 issue rather than an Article 5 one, Turkey has gotten a harsh blanket condemnation of Syrian action while still maintaining the credible threat of future force. Had Turkey made the same mistake that it did a couple of months ago by rashly bringing up Article 5 (and in fact, Deputy PM Bülent Arınç threatened to invoke it yesterday before quickly being reigned in), it would have backfired since there is no desire among NATO countries right now to go to war with Syria. By not doing so, Turkey now buys some time to convince Russia that its backing of Syria and Assad is a mistaken policy and lets pressure on Assad build, and also lets the possibility of unilateral Turkish action dangle out there in the wind.
More impressively, Turkey has now established a de facto buffer zone inside of Syria without having to cross the border or fire a single shot. By changing its rules of engagement with Syria and announcing that it will consider all Syrian military forces approaching the border to be a threat, and then deploying its own tanks and artillery to the border, Turkey has accomplished its goal of a few months ago. Syria is going to be far more cautious going forward about what goes on near the Turkish border, and Turkey now gets its buffer zone and possibly a temporary solution to its refugee problem. This will also help stop PKK fighters from crossing over into Turkey as there is a much larger military presence than there was previously.
Nobody at this point should need any convincing that Assad is a butcher whose actions are reprehensible in every conceivable way. States tend to turn a blind eye to abuses that take place within another state’s borders, however, on the grounds that the offending state does not represent a threat to other sovereign entities. In shooting down the Turkish plane, Damascus made a grave mistake, because we now have Exhibit A that Syria’s actions are not confined simply to killing its own people, but that it is willing to lash out at other states as well. Ankara is doing everything it can to drum that fact home by contrasting Syrian action with its own – Erdoğan today revealed that Turkish airspace was violated 114 times this year with every violation resolved without incident, and that Syrian helicopters crossed into Turkish airspace 5 times and each time were warned to turn around without being fired upon. By doing a masterful job of highlighting Syria’s reckless overreaction against another state and by painstakingly marshaling the resources to tighten the noose around Damascus, Erdoğan is making the possibility of Assad eventually being forced from power more likely. An immediate Turkish assault on Syrian targets last Friday might have been viscerally satisfying, but Ankara is being smart in taking the longer view of things.
June 25, 2012 § 2 Comments
Turkey is in an uproar over its jet that was shot down by Syria on Friday, and between talking with the opposition on Sunday and a cabinet meeting on Monday, not to mention briefings and consultations with allies over the weekend and the upcoming NATO Article 4 meeting, it is not yet clear what steps Ankara will take in retaliation. Whatever happens though, I remain confident that this is not going to lead to Turkey taking any unilateral steps toward attacking Syria, despite the reports that Syria knew it was shooting at a Turkish jet. Turkey does not want to get bogged down in a war with Syria, despite the fact that it has an enormous military advantage. It has been dragging its feet for months – remember all that ridiculous speculation about Turkey establishing buffer zones inside of Syria? – and trying to get the international community involved to no avail, and the downing of its jet will only magnify this tendency.
To be clear, I am not contending that Turkey does not want to see Assad gone; I have no doubt that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu want him out of Damascus in the worst way possible. They do not, however, want to do it themselves, and for very good reason. This is a smart pair and they know the many pitfalls of going to war, and despite the fact Syria is causing them all sorts of headaches, they do not rise to the level of serious threat that would require Turkish military intervention. Ankara threatened to invoke Article 5 when Syrian forces shot across the border in April, but it was clear that was an empty threat and ultimately did not good. This time around, the government is being much smarter, and not threatening to invoke Article 5 but actually invoking Article 4, which calls for NATO consultations rather than automatic NATO action. The intention is not to actually invade Syria, but to ratchet up the political pressure as much as possible so as to force a diplomatic solution in which Assad’s Russian backers desert him and he has to leave. The strategy is the same as it has always been – internationalize the conflict as much as possible so that Turkey is not left to do the dirty work all by itself – only now Turkey has a big trump card in its hand, which is the credible threat of force since shooting down a jet is a pretty big deal. Will this strategy work? I think it depends on how determined Assad is to stay put at all costs. My read of the situation is that the only way he ever agrees to leave his perch in Damascus is by gunpoint, but Ankara might have a different (and much better informed) view that mine. Here’s to hoping that Turkey is able to turn this incident into a positive and force a resolution to the mess in Syria that leaves Syria better off and Turkey in a stronger and less uncertain position.
The more interesting question to me though is why Turkey has shown so much restraint, which is both admirable and puzzling at the same time. To understand why, it is useful to do a quick thought experiment. Let’s say that Syria had downed an Israeli jet on Friday; is there any doubt at all that Israel would have spent the weekend absolutely pummeling Syrian military targets? There wouldn’t have been a Syrian air defense battery left standing. It also can’t escape notice that in 2007 Israeli inserted commandos into Syria after which Israeli planes crossed into Syrian airspace, took out a Syrian radar installation, completely obliterated a Syrian nuclear reactor, extracted the commandos (who had painted the target with lasers), and landed safely back in Israel with literally zero consequences. Yet Syria had absolutely no compunction about shooting down a Turkish plane that ever so briefly crossing a couple of miles into Syria. When it comes to Israel, Syria is scared of its own shadow, but it has no problem bringing down a Turkish plane or shooting across the Turkish border. It’s not as if Syria shouldn’t think twice about messing with Turkey – the Turkish military is large, well trained, well equipped, and generally fearsome.
I think the answer to Turkish restraint here lies in the various international institutions in which it is enmeshed, a situation that is different to that of Israel’s. Turkey is a member of NATO and a prospective member of the EU, and this affords it both a measure of security while also acting as an involuntary restraint. Turkey has the luxury of involving NATO and bringing a lot of global pressure to bear on Syria with the possibility of a genuinely international response to Syrian action against Turkey. Attacking Turkey is enormously risky in this regard, which is why Syria immediately went out of its way to emphasize that this had been a mistake and that it was working to recover the two missing pilots and the wreckage of the jet. By the same token, however, the very thing that increases Turkey’s power and clout also holds it back. Because an attack on Turkey is an attack on every other NATO country, Turkey cannot just dash into an armed conflict with Syria, as NATO Article 5 then gets invoked and that is pretty serious business. By testing the waters with Turkey, Damascus is gambling that the other NATO states do not want to get involved in what has turned into a Syrian civil war and that Ankara knows this. The days of deliberations on the heels of Friday’s disaster confirm this, since Turkey has not yet responded, has not revealed what its plans are, and has not brought up Article 5, and the more time that passes, the more difficult it will be for Ankara to respond militarily. It seems to me that the Turkish government is going out of its way not to inflame public expectations for a forceful armed response, and the NATO factor is a large part of why that is. To some extent, Turkey is handcuffed when it comes to these borderline situations in a way that a state like Israel is not, and Assad understands this full well.
This is a really useful example of the way in which international institutions can both empower and restrain simultaneously, illustrating that they confer serious benefits but also come with serious drawbacks. Turkish restraint here is not just about Turkey or what Erdoğan wants to do, but is bound up in NATO politics. Were Turkey in Israel’s position and felt in a variety of ways more isolated, leading to a more go it alone mentality, I think Assad would be sleeping far more fitfully tonight.
June 22, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Syria has apparently shot down a Turkish warplane, and the details about how it occurred and whether or not the pilots have been rescued yet are still murky since there are conflicting reports. I don’t want to draw any large conclusions yet until we know precisely what happened, but here are some questions to think about while we wait for more details.
1. Was the plane shot down on purpose or was it an accident? A subset of this is whether Syria purposely and knowingly shot at the plane but didn’t realize who it was shooting at
2. Was the plane in Syrian airspace or in international airspace? If the answer is the former, what was it doing there? My bet is that a Turkish plane along the border is PKK-related, but it could be something else entirely.
3. What is the scope of the Syrian apology? It is simply an apology, or is it being backed up by Syrian assistance in a search and rescue mission?
4. Is Turkey talking about invoking NATO Article V, as it threatened to do a couple of months ago when Syrian forces shot across the border with Turkey? That would be a sure sign that it plans on ratcheting things up with Syria.
5. Does Turkey actually want to increase hostilities with Syria? Up until this point, Ankara has been trying its hardest not to get entangled without a serious international effort, which is why the talk about Turkish buffer zones has dried up. Is this going to be the impetus for Turkish forces in Syria? My guess is no, but Erdoğan is headed now to Ankara for consultations with his top defense officials and he may feel pressured to respond in some form.
6. Can Erdoğan leverage the incident to make this a net positive for Turkey? If he can credibly threaten Assad with a military response, he might be able to get some cooperation on getting rid of the PKK or quieting things along the border to alleviate the refugee problem.