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.