October 24, 2012 § Leave a Comment
One of the things that clearly emerged from the debate on Monday is that, despite some predictions to the contrary, there is not going to be any serious U.S. assistance to Turkey on the Syria front after the election. As regular readers know, I have argued that no U.S. or NATO military action is forthcoming but I have still seen and heard speculation that neither candidate can make promises to intervene during campaign season but that it will happen following the election. On Monday night though, both President Obama and Mitt Romney insisted in no uncertain terms that the U.S. military is not going to get involved. Romney displayed a willingness to supply the Syrian rebels with heavier arms but not to send U.S. troops to intervene in the conflict, and Obama reiterated previous warnings about the dangers of blowback once you arm rebels with anything more than light weapons. Neither of the two men left much wiggle room at all in their answers, and it did not seem to me as if these were positions being staked out for campaign purposes that will be quickly rolled back once the election is in the rearview mirror. It goes without saying that if the U.S. is reluctant to intervene in Syria, NATO is even more so, and I can’t imagine a scenario in which there is a NATO presence in Syria or along the Syrian border without American involvement.
So what does Turkey do now? Prime Minister Erdoğan has been agitating for months to get the U.S. to intervene, ideally by setting up a no fly zone, and has denounced the U.S. for dragging its heels. That strategy has not paid off, and more tough rhetoric from Ankara is not going to change that since both Obama and Romney have calculated that it is simply not in American interests to intervene. It seems to me that Turkey has a menu of very bad options from which to choose. One is to try and go into Syria alone, which as I have detailed and as Dov Friedman and Aaron Stein have documented even more thoroughly, is a bad idea that is unlikely to happen. Another is to sit tight, try to keep the status quo, and respond to each instance Syrian shelling across the border with a more forceful round of Turkish shelling, which is what Turkey has been doing for the past month. I think that this second option is what is going to keep on taking place, but it should be perfectly clear by now that this doesn’t exactly solve the problem. If Turkey expected this strategy to be a placeholder until it got outside help for intervening, now is the time to rethink things in a serious way. Ankara has to come up with a new strategy that assumes no eventual U.S. or NATO involvement, since it has appeared up until now that Erdoğan has been waiting for exactly that. It goes without saying, of course, that Turkey can use all the help that it can get, and to that end the continuing refusal to back down from demanding that Israel end its Gaza blockade is not doing Turkey any favors. The Israeli government certainly seems open at this point to apologizing and paying compensation, and the faster that Turkey drops the Gaza demand, the faster Israel and Turkey can reconcile and perhaps some coordination will allow Ankara to start developing a more realistic long-term strategy to deal with its truculent neighbor next door.
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 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 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 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.