November 8, 2012 § 6 Comments
I was talking with my good friend and colleague Steven Cook about the news that Turkey was planning to request that NATO deploy Patriot missiles along the Syrian border, and since we both had nearly identical thoughts on the subject, we thought we’d link O&Z and From the Potomac to the Euphrates together and write a joint post. You can read it here or on Steven’s blog (where he has a cool picture of a Patriot missile battery up top).
Wednesday saw a strange confluence of events surrounding Turkey and its oft-stated determination to intervene in Syria with the help of its Western allies. It began with an unnamed Turkish Foreign Ministry official – presumably Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu – revealing that there have been talks between Turkey and the United States about deploying Patriot missile batteries on the Syrian border. According to this report, the purpose of the Patriots would be to create a safe zone inside of Syria as a way of supporting a limited no-fly zone. This report would have been unusual by itself given that Patriot missiles are an odd vehicle to use for creating a no-fly zone, but it was particularly puzzling given Prime Minister Erdoğan’s statement the day before explicitly disavowing any Turkish intentions to buy Patriot missiles. More drama ensued after Davutoğlu was identified as the official claiming that a NATO deployment of Patriots was imminent, with the Foreign Ministry subsequently denying that Davutoğlu had ever made such a claim.
There are a couple of things here that don’t quite seem right. First, Patriot missiles are not what one would typically use to enforce or support a no-fly zone. Patriots are defensive weapons, designed to shoot down incoming missiles and not fix-winged aircraft or helicopters. Their deployment would only make sense if Ankara were concerned about a barrage of Syria’s Scud missiles tipped with chemical weapons—a largely theoretical threat. Second, despite the calls for intervention in Syria from some quarters of Washington, the Obama administration has been reluctant to get involved in Syria beyond technical support that may or may not include small arms. Anonymous reports coming out of Turkey the day after the election claiming that the U.S. and NATO are now about to prepare for staging a no-fly zone seem a little more than idle chatter. Neither the White House nor the State Department nor the Pentagon have demonstrated any appetite for getting involved in Syria, with its layers of political, sectarian, and regional complexities that could suck Washington into yet another long-term military and diplomatic commitment in the Muslim world. Against this backdrop, the recent meeting that the United States orchestrated in Doha to broaden the Syrian opposition was an effort to preclude a greater American involvement in Syria’s civil war.
The deployment of the Patriots is likely a precursor to no new initiative, but rather has more to do with U.S. and NATO relations with Turkey. Ankara, incapable of managing the Syrian crisis on its own, has continually sought to involve Western powers in a greater way. For much of the past year, Prime Minister Erdoğan has been attempting to drum up support for outside intervention by threatening to unilaterally create a buffer zone inside Syria, making noise about invoking NATO Article 5, calling out the U.S. for dragging its feet while Assad butchers his own people, and implying that NATO is in danger of losing its credibility as the Syrian civil war drags on. Despite a combination of public and private cajoling, Erdoğan has made little headway, and Wednesday’s barrage of leaks and half-truths fits into the pattern of doing anything possible to pull the U.S. into Syria one way or another. By making it seem as if a no-fly zone is a fait accompli, Ankara is hoping to create enough momentum to spur some real action. Yet rather than respond to the Turkish government’s posturing and efforts to shame the United States and NATO into taking Turkey’s preferred course, Ankara’s allies have sought to placate it with a symbolic dispatch of largely useless weapons.
Overall, the announcement that Patriots will be deployed to Turkey fits a pattern that has developed in Turkey’s relations with its traditional partners, who have sought to keep Ankara minimally satisfied without actually having to commit much of anything to Syria. If scattering Patriot missile batteries along the Turkish-Syrian border is the price of keeping Turkey temporarily happy, it’s a pretty small price to pay, and certainly nothing compared to the cost of actually intervening in Syria.
October 16, 2012 § 1 Comment
There are many good reasons to support some form of international intervention in Syria. Among them are that Bashar al-Assad is indiscriminately killing and torturing his own people, there is an enormous refugee crisis that is only growing, and the chaos in Syria might very well ignite a larger regional war. These are all credible arguments that have been made by people I respect, and they lead to a healthy and informed debate about the right course of action. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor yesterday, however, Jorge Benitez made an argument for intervention in Syria that stretches the bounds of credulity.
Benitez claims that NATO is obligated to intervene in the conflict because Turkey has been attacked on two separate occasions – the shooting down of a Turkish reconnaissance plane in June and the shelling of Akçakale a couple of weeks ago – saying, “If NATO persists in offering only paper promises to Turkey, the perception that the alliance lacks the political will to back up allies even if they are attacked will be a major blow to NATO’s credibility.” The problem here is that the definition of “attack” is not as cut and dry as Benitez suggests. The details surrounding the downing of the Turkish F-4 in June are still hazy since it is not yet clear where or even how the jet was brought down, and in any event Turkey has admitted that the jet was at some point flying in Syrian airspace. The Akçakale shelling was certainly reprehensible and Turkey has every right to respond as it sees fit given that five Turkish civilians were killed by Syrian artillery fire, but it is also a fact that Syrian forces were not intentionally shelling Turkey but were aiming at rebel forces on the Syrian side of the border. None of this is meant to excuse Syria’s actions in any way; Turkey’s retaliatory shelling of Syrian positions has been absolutely legitimate and justified in my view. Has Turkey suffered an attack? Yup. But has Turkey suffered an intentional and purposeful attack from Syria to the level that should automatically trigger NATO intervention? That one, which is what Benitez is arguing, seems to me to be more of a stretch. I understand why Ankara wants firmer support from NATO than ineffective statements expressing strong condemnation of Syrian actions, but it is one thing to argue that NATO should be doing something and quite another to argue that NATO is obligated to be doing something. I don’t think that the situation supports this latter argument just yet.
Benitez does not advocate a full-scale NATO invasion of Syria, but rather suggests that NATO should deploy AWACS early warning aircraft and/or a rapid reaction force to the Syrian-Turkish border, and argues that doing so would deescalate any confrontation between Turkey and Syria. The logic here appears suspect to me as well. Again, we can have a serious debate over whether NATO should be doing more to help one of its members, and whether the absence of any serious action on Turkey’s behalf puts the future of the alliance in danger. But let’s also not kid ourselves – getting NATO aircraft and soldiers involved is not going to deescalate anything. In fact, it will almost certainly have the exact opposite effect, which is why Turkey is trying its hardest to get a NATO commitment, since the Turkish government does not want to deescalate things but wants to set a series of events in motion that will lead to Assad’s ouster. A NATO presence along the border will not lead Syria to cease attacking rebel positions, but will act as a tripwire for greater NATO involvement and eventually active intervention in Syria. I am open to a wide variety of arguments about why NATO, the UN, or the U.S. should be intervening alongside Turkey in Syria, but they should at least be credibly honest arguments rather than attempts at Jedi mind tricks.
October 4, 2012 § 19 Comments
Following yesterday’s shelling of Akçakale by Syrian forces and the retaliatory artillery strike by Turkey on Syria, there has been lots of speculation about what will come next and loose terminology about the “pending war” between the two countries. If a war actually happens, it won’t be the first time I’ve been very wrong and certainly won’t be the last, but I just don’t see a war happening for a number of reasons.
First, as I have noted too many times to count and as Aaron Stein firmly argued yesterday, there is simply no appetite on NATO’s part to get involved in Syria. Turkey was able to convene an Article 4 meeting in which NATO strongly condemned the Syrian shelling that killed five Turkish civilians, but that is about as far as NATO is willing to go. NATO is not going to get involved in setting up a buffer zone, a no-fly zone, or a humanitarian corridor inside Syria, and the U.S. is also not going to commit to doing any of those things any time soon. It has been clear for a year now that Turkey is not going to invade Syria on its own, which is why Ankara has desperately been trying to convince outside actors to intervene, and absent an international intervention, I don’t see yesterday’s incident changing this calculus. Without international support – and I’d note that Prime Minister Erdoğan has explicitly ruled out anything outside of official UN auspices – Turkey is going to stay out of Syria. With reports of Hizballah fighters and IRGC soldiers crawling inside Syrian borders, the Turkish government does not want to get entangled in a scenario that might quickly blow up out of its control.
Second, there is no reason for Syria not to back away from this as quickly as possible. The only way in which Turkey will be drawn into Syria unilaterally is if the Assad regime escalates this in a serious way, and while Assad and the Syrian army are unpredictable, this is not a fight they are eager to have. Syria has spent months testing Turkey’s patience and trying to figure out what its boundaries are, and yesterday’s events will make it clear to Syria that this was one step too far. The regime has its hands full with the FSA and doesn’t need to add the Turkish military into the mix, which explains the quick decision to express sorrow over the death of Turkish civilians and a promise to investigate. There are two possibilities here; either the shelling was unintentional, in which case Syria has every reason to back down, or it was done on purpose to test how far Turkey is willing to go in retaliation, in which case mission accomplished and Syria still has every reason to now back down. While allowing for the fact that this cannot necessarily be gamed out in an entirely logical manner, I don’t see a scenario in which Syria decides to turn this into a high intensity conflict.
There is little question that Turkey had no choice but to retaliate in some form yesterday. When Syrian forces shot across the border last spring and killed two Syrian refugees in Turkish camps, Turkey threatened retaliatory action but did nothing. When the Turkish F-4 reconnaissance plane was downed this summer, Turkey moved tanks and artillery to the border but ultimately stood down. This time, however, Turkish civilians died, and no government can afford to sit idly by when its citizens are targeted and killed by a hostile foreign government. Turkey needed to respond in some way, but it is instructive that the Turkish response was to shell some as yet to be described Syrian targets rather than launching an air strike. From a domestic political perspective, Erdoğan had to respond quickly (particularly given the near riot in Akçakale), and the move to get parliamentary authorization to launch operations inside of Syria is part and parcel of the same political concerns. The government needs to be seen as strong when Turkish blood is spilled, but Erdoğan is also playing this game very exactly, since there is a fine line between taking limited action that conveys strength and resolve and getting drawn into a tactical mess in Syria. What I expect will happen is another round of strong condemnations, more strident threats to intervene in Syria, mobilizing tanks, artillery, planes, and troops to the border…and ultimately Turkey will stay on its own side of the line. As I keep on reiterating, Turkey is in a lose-lose situation when it comes to Syria without a good answer at hand, and yesterday’s events reinforce that even further. The bottom line though is that given the constraints involved, it is going to take a lot more than shelling a border town to start a real war between Turkey and Syria.
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.
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.
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 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
Michael Herzog and Soner Cagaptay have an op-ed in today’s New York Times on Israel-Turkey relations in which they argue that the situation in Syria can provide the impetus for the two countries to reconcile. I was reluctant to comment on it since I have an op-ed of my own coming out soon on steps that need to be taken for Israel and Turkey to make up, but I think their piece has some flaws that I can’t help but point out. I am no stranger to the Syria argument, having pointed out before that it would be to both states’ benefit to cooperate on Syria. Herzog and Cagaptay take this idea a few steps too far, however, by essentially arguing that the mess in Syria can be the primary force that will move Jerusalem and Ankara back together.
The first problem with this is that while Israeli and Turkish cooperation would be nice, Syria presents a very different set of problems for each. Turkey is facing a serious refugee crisis with Syrians fleeing across the Turkish border, the prospect of revitalized PKK terrorism if Assad provides the PKK with a safe haven inside Syria, and reputational and credibility problems following early Turkish threats to establish buffer zones inside of Syria that are clearly nowhere close to materializing. In contrast, Israel is facing the possibility of Assad and the Syrian army stirring up trouble with Israel in an effort to distract from the massacres being carried out by Assad’s forces, Hizballah shooting volleys of missiles into northern Israel in response to alleged “Israeli meddling” in the conflict, and the inclusion of Islamist elements dangerously hostile to Israel in the Syrian opposition. So yes, in a wider sense, both Israel and Turkey are facing problems because of the brewing Syrian civil war, but that does not mean that cooperation between the two is such a no-brainer that it will get them to reconcile. For instance, would Israel help install the Syrian National Council in Damascus in order to stem the flow of refugees into Turkey if it means that it now faces Islamist governments on its southern and northern borders? Does Israel have anywhere near the level of interest in driving the PKK out of Syria as Turkey does? Yes, both countries want a resolution of some sort, but it is entirely unclear that they would agree on what that should be.
Second, Herzog and Cagaptay argue that any Israeli involvement in Syria has to be secret:
Any Israeli contribution would, of course, have to be invisible in order not to create a sense that Israel was behind the Syrian uprising. This makes Turkish-Israeli cooperation against Mr. Assad even more valuable, for it would allow Israel to provide untraceable assets to support Turkey’s efforts to undermine the Assad government.
Well, doesn’t that contradict the premise of the entire argument? Israel and Turkey are very publicly at odds, and any reconciliation is going to have to be a public one as a result. Much of the benefit of reconciling, and this is particularly true for Israel, is a public relations one, so some sort of secret rapprochement that nobody knows about outside of the respective countries’ militaries and intelligence services does not do much good. The notion that Israel would agree to help out Turkey but do so in an untraceable way is not a point that bolsters the argument that cooperation on Syria is going to lead to a reconciliation. It might be an important confidence building measure, but if you are claiming that the Syria mess is going to push Israel and Turkey to repair their relationship, you had better come up with something more than covert intelligence assistance.
Then there are a bunch of smaller problems in the piece. The authors assert that “A Turkish-Israeli dialogue on Syria could bolster Israel’s interest in regime change and enlist Israel to generate American support,” but I hardly think that Israel voicing its approval of a Turkish plan to get the U.S. involved is going to sway the administration’s impulse to stay out of things. They also argue that Shaul Mofaz’s inclusion in the cabinet dampens the influence of Avigdor Lieberman and his strident criticisms of Turkey, but Lieberman is hardly the only politician to have a hard line on a flotilla apology and there is no evidence that Mofaz is itching to pursue normalized ties. There is no discussion in the piece of the larger structural incentives that might push Israel and Turkey to reconcile, since the Syria issue has not been enough up until this point. In sum, I don’t think that Herzog and Cagaptay are wrong to identify Syria as a problem for both Israel and Turkey, but the overall argument flies right over so many important details that to me their op-ed fails to convince.
April 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
I haven’t blogged much about Turkey and Syria despite the increasingly heated rhetoric being directed at Assad on Turkey’s part because I still don’t see anything changing the basic fact that Turkey wants to avoid having to establish a buffer zone in Syria at any cost. The shooting over the border by Syrian forces is a serious issue for Turkey, and the new word is that Turkey might establish a buffer zone if Syria massacres civilians that are gathering in camps near Aleppo or if another 25,000 refugees cross into Turkey, both of which are a pretty high threshold to overcome and still do not guarantee that Turkey will actually create a buffer zone inside Syria. The border violation by Syria puts Turkey in a real bind, because Ankara is not going engage in open hostilities with Syrian forces over the killing of two Syrian refugees and the wounding of others inside Turkey’s territory, but to not do so essentially lets Assad call Erdoğan’s bluff and keep on pushing the line further and further. Turkey desperately wants an international solution here, explaining Erdoğan’s blasting of the U.N. and the foreign ministry deriding Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan as irrelevant, which Turkey hopes will spur stronger action against Syria so that it will not have to back up its noise about taking matters into its own hands. The bottom line here is that Turkey prematurely floated rumors of a buffer zone never intending to actually have to set one up, and now its bluff is being called in a big way. That does not change the fact that Turkey does not actually want to have to send its troops into Syria and risk becoming entangled in a hot war with Assad’s forces, and absent Syria shelling the Turkish border and killing a significant number of Turks, I still maintain that a buffer zone is not going to happen. The Turkish foreign ministry can float as many stories as it wants in Zaman and Milliyet of behind the scenes discussions regarding a buffer zone, but it’s just not in Turkey’s interests to do so, and I’ll believe it is going to happen when I see actual troop deployments taking place. Until then, my prediction will remain unchanged.