The worst case scenario has come for Syria and the region at large
By: Egemen B. Bezci
Soon after the Arab Spring spread into Syria, conflict between Damascus and Ankara has been escalating rapidly. Numerous factors have exacerbated the dispute, including the presence of around 100,000 Syrian asylum seekers in camps provided by the Turkish Red Crescent near the Turkish-Syrian border, the Free Syrian Army’s activities in Turkey, the Assad regime’s support for groups designated by Turkey as terrorist organizations, Syrian mortar shells falling on Turkish soil, and Turkey’s artillery retaliation against Assad regime targets. The latest major incident, the forced landing of a Syrian passenger airplane en route from Moscow to Damascus through Turkish airspace, has served only to inflame tensions further, making war between the two neighboring countries more likely than ever before.
The Syrian airplane was forced down by Turkish F-16 fighter jets due to intelligence indicating that there were weapons being smuggled in the plane’s cargo. After the investigation by Turkish authorities, the materials found in the cargo department were held for further analysis. Turkish authorities claimed that material to produce radar systems was found in the airplane’s cargo section. Soon after, Syria blamed Turkey for air piracy for forcing a civilian aircraft to land and in response Ankara issued a note signee to Syria for violating civilian air transportation regulations by transporting arms material. Moreover, the Turkish Ministry of Transportation send an urgent warning to Turkish civilian airline companies not to use Syrian airspace to avoid possible retaliation by Assad regime.
The tension is rising between Turkey and Syria, and is gradually evolving into an interstate armed clash. After the authorization given by the Turkish parliament for military action against Syria, Turkey has already started deploying tanks and fighter jets near the Syrian border. Turkish President Abdullah Gül’s recent statement indicating a worst case scenario is occurring in Syria demonstrated that an armed clash between Syria and Turkey is on the table. The worst case scenario that President Gül highlighted is not the worsening humanitarian situation in Syria; it is the imminent threat of the civil war in Syria becoming an interstate conflict between Turkey and Syria with Russian support.
Turkey’s policy towards Syria is under pressure from its allies, particularly, Ankara is concerned that its strategic partners will abandon its aid in its hour of need. Turkish decision-makers’ vision to manage the situation in Syria greatly differs from Washington. Turkey hopes for a U.N.-supported NATO military operation in Syria to create a safe haven for Free Syrian Army forces in northern Syria. With this aim, Turkish decision-makers desire both to free northern Syria (especially around Qamishli province) from the control of Kurdish Workers’ Party-related Kurdish groups, and create a tactical advantage for the Free Syrian Army to eventually topple the Assad regime. However, this strategy doesn’t match with the leading from behind approach adopted by Washington and NATO in response to the Arab Spring. Turkish security concerns about the increasing activity of Kurdish militants in northern Syria and Syrian artillery fire falling on Turkish soil, have given Turkey new urgency to act and not wait on a leading from behind strategy, instead seeking direct military intervention from NATO. However, this Turkish solution for the Syrian conflict is not widely shared by Washington and other members of the treaty organization.
Although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Putin have said that there are not major problems between Turkey and Russia, it is explicit that Turkey and Russia do not share a common vision for the situation in Syria. Turkish-Russian relations since 2002 have experienced a rapprochement as Cold War-originated tensions have been alleviated. Moreover, the relationship between the two countries reached a level of strategic cooperation, providing bases for the resolution of regional security issues such as the Turkish-Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts. It should also be noted that Turkey’s energy and commercial dependency on Russia plays as a major decisive role in the Turkish foreign policy making process. Therefore, Russian support for Turkey’s regional aspirations is a key consideration for Turkish decision-makers. In regards to the Syrian issue, Russia would prefer to not lose its most important client in the Middle East, and moreover, a NATO-led intervention in Syria by invoking NATO’s Article 5 would challenge Russian interests in the region. Turkey’s recent policies towards Syria have not only caused a souring in Turkish-Russian relations, but also reanimated the Cold War geopolitics that they the countries had only just buried.
The worst case scenario is emerging. Neither the United States or Russia are supportive of Turkey’s vision for the solution. This situation is reawakening one of the greatest fears in Turkish foreign policy: isolation in the global arena. Turkey cannot find the necessary support for its vision neither from Moscow or Washington, nor from the United Nations. However, Turkish national interests will not permit the continued violation of its sovereignty by Syrian mortar shells, nor a constant flow of Syrian asylum seekers across the Turkish border. Moreover, the absence of authority in northern Syria is allowing a new autonomous Kurdish region to emerge dominated by groups tied to the Kurdish Workers’ Party. If such an entity matures in northern Syria, Ankara could decide to defend its interests by any means necessary. Then, the whole region would become a theater for the worst case scenario — a new interstate war in the Middle East.
Egemen B. Bezci is a Senior Editor at The Jerusalem Review.
Photo Credit: Flickr, Freedom House