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.