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.