A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Hyperbole

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.

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When It Comes To Turkey & Syria, Is Robert Wright Right?

October 11, 2012 § 9 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.

There Won’t Be A War Between Turkey And Syria

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.

Guest Post: Assessing Ankara’s Options After The Syrian Mortar Strike

October 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

Aaron Stein, who is a PhD candidate at King’s College focusing on nuclear and missile proliferation in the Middle East, is my guru on all things WMD and weapons-related, and he is my go to source whenever I have a question about specific defense issues or capabilities. Since he also conveniently happens to live in Turkey, he was the first person I turned to when thinking about how Turkey might respond militarily to today’s Syrian shelling across the Turkish border, and Aaron graciously agreed to write what is an extremely smart and timely blog post on the issue.

An errant Syrian mortar shell landed in Turkish territory today, killing five people and wounding many more. This latest provocation comes just five days after Turkey warned Syria that it would take action if Syrian artillery continued to accidently target Turkish territory. The previous warning came in the wake of another mortar strike that damaged homes, but, thankfully, did not result in any Turkish casualties. The recent strike is sure to raise tensions and will almost certainly prompt a Turkish response. However, the nature of that response is unclear and the range of options that is likely being debated is fraught with political and security risks.

The first and most obvious course of action would be for Ankara to issue a diplomatic note. Ankara used this tactic after Syrian protesters attacked the Turkish embassy in Damascus. It could also invoke article 4 of the NATO Convention and convene a meeting of NATO ambassadors to consult about the current security situation in Syria. Another more serious option would be to invoke NATO article 5 and thereby committing the other members of the Alliance to assist in Turkish defense. Critically, this does not obligate other members of the Alliance to take military action. Instead, the Article says that “the Parties . . . will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

Typically, the level of assistance, or the type of action, is not specified. However, it is unlikely that the current scenario would escalate to the point of Alliance wide military action in Syria. NATO is likely to respond by issuing a statement condemning Syrian aggression, mourning the loss of life, and reaffirming in the strongest words possible Turkey’s importance to the NATO alliance. NATO used this tactic after Turkey’s F-4 was shot down, but did little else.

This leaves Turkey with the option of pursuing independent military action. Ankara has made clear on multiple occasions that it has studied in depth the use of military force to carve out a “buffer zone” or to implement a “partial-no-fly-zone”. However, Ankara’s ability to implement such measures appears to be limited. It is worth noting that NATO’s intervention in Libya, which many tout as a potential model for a Syria, necessitated American involvement to carry out. The New York Times reported in April 2012 that “a confidential NATO assessment paints a sobering portrait of the alliance’s ability to carry out such [no-fly-zone] campaigns without significant support from the United States. The report concluded that the allies struggled to share crucial target information, lacked specialized planners and analysts, and overly relied on the United States for reconnaissance and refueling aircraft.”

The article quotes a European diplomat saying “If anything were to be envisaged over Syria, even in purely hypothetical terms, it would also rely heavily on U.S. capabilities.” Given the report’s conclusions, the idea of Turkey implementing a unilateral no fly zone, or even a limited buffer zone, appears to be a long shot. Much like what happened following the downing of the Turkish F-4, Ankara’s threats will probably not be acted upon.

If Turkey were to choose to strike militarily, it may do so by retaliating against Syrian artillery near the Turkish-Syrian border. However, this strategy is fraught with risk. A strike using Turkish F-16s would satisfy those eager for a reprisal attack but would not prevent future accidental strikes. Artillery is mobile and Syria is estimated to have thousands of mortars, howitzers, and tanks. Simply hitting one would likely result in Damascus replacing it with another. It is unclear if Ankara would risk a major escalation for such little gain. Moreover, Syrian air defenses have already proven themselves capable of shooting down Turkish aircraft.

Before authorizing a strike, Prime Minister Erdoğan would have to weigh the possibility of losing a pilot, or even worse, a major escalation, for a small gain. With the AKP catching flack for its handling of the Syrian crisis, Erdogan might conclude that this is the moment to follow through on his rhetoric and respond aggressively to the Syrian provocation. On the other hand, Erdoğan could conclude that the risks outweigh the benefits. Up until this point, Erdoğan has shown an unwillingness to do much on the military front other than talk tough and make threats. This time may be different, but prudence suggests that Turkey should use the incident to reinvigorate its calls for an international solution to the crisis.

Frankly, Turkey has few military options. A small strike would achieve few, if any, real gains. The Turkish military does not have the capabilities to implement a buffer zone, thus limiting its long-term options. While striking back at Syria may appease a certain segment of the Turkish electorate, the risk of escalation is considerable. Turkey should avoid striking Syrian targets and instead focus on its broader policy objectives. It should use the incident to condemn Syria for its act and leverage the Syrian provocation to garner more international support for a political solution.

A Turkish Lesson On How To Turn Lemons Into Lemonade

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.

A Brief Thought Experiment on Turkey and Syria, and What Comes Next

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.

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