Turkey did two things today to box Syria in that are extremely clever, and Erdoğan and Davutoğlu deserve a lot of credit for it. First, the army issued an order to its troops on the Syrian border not to engage with Syrian forces unless they are certain that they are being specifically targeted. This comes in response to the shots fired into a refugee camp in Turkey two days ago, which could have precipitated a real escalation but did not thanks to Turkish restraint. Turkey absolutely does not want to be drawn into open conflict with Syria for a variety of reasons, while at the same time it is in Assad’s interests to provoke Turkey in order to muddy the waters and change the conversation away from civilian massacres and also to gauge just how far Turkey is willing to go. The order not to get drawn into a conflict unless targeted – and to thus ignore more boundary-testing on Syria’s part – is a smart move, and lets Turkey play things out on its own terms rather than on Assad’s.
Second, Erdoğan has concluded that the U.N. is of only limited effectiveness and has turned to a more credible actor in using Turkey’s status as a member of NATO in order to pressure Assad. Following Erdoğan’s threat to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter – which obligates all NATO members to respond to an attack on one of its own – should Syria continue to violate Turkey’s border, NATO announced that it is officially monitoring the situation on the border. This is also a great strategic move on Turkey’s part, since while Assad may want to test Turkey, he certainly does not want to deal with NATO, and unlike the P5 veto in the Security Council that relegates the U.N. to little more than a debate club, NATO does not have such hoops to jump through before acting. The combination of the NATO threat and the order for Turkish restraint gives Assad very little room to maneuver, since a real violation of Turkish sovereignty risks widespread and sustained NATO action but little pincer moves along the border will not trick Turkey into a pointless retaliation. All in all, a good turn of events for Turkey and a bad turn of events for Assad.
Furthermore, do not underestimate the effect of the NATO threat on Syrian compliance with the Annan ceasefire deal. It is not a coincidence that Assad violated the earlier deadline this week but is so far holding up its end of the deal right after Turkey’s NATO threat. Now that it is more than the U.N. that is potentially involved, Assad may wise up to the fact that continued fighting puts him in real danger. Give Erdoğan and Davutoğlu credit for this as well. Their principled position on Syria is beginning to pay dividends.
Military capability is a power itself, but not when others see you reluctant to use that military might. As you pointed out, it was a smart move on Turkey’s part to remind Assad that Turkey is a NATO country and collective response to border violations would be much harsher than unilateral actions that Turkey can take.
It was also interesting to see that when Erdogan mentioned Turkey may invoke Article 5 of NATO, most of the pundits claimed that Turkey cannot do such a thing because border skirmishes would not qualify for NATO collective defense. They failed to think about projecting power through threat and to make your cards visible once in a while is quite good.