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.