Turkey-Syria Conflict

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Is Turkey preparing to join the war in Syria?

This is the question people are asking in the wake of recent events, in which Syrian shells rained down on the Turkish border village of Akçakale, killing five in Turkey last week. Turkey retaliated almost immediately, shelling locations within Syria for five straight days in response. Over the weekend, more Syrian shells landed in Turkey, this time in Turkey’s Hatay province, which just happened to be a part of Syria until 1938 and which has long constituted a bone of contention between the two countries.

And the details are indeed interesting. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has asked for and received permission to respond from the Turkish parliament, which has authorized the government to take military action against Syria, including the deployment of Turkish forces if necessary. According to Turkish media reports, seven Syrian soldiers were killed in the Turkish shelling from last week, and this week the news reports continue to be grim

The events from last week hardly constitute Turkey’s first involvement in the ongoing conflict in Syria. In June of this year, Syria shot down a Turkish jet, claiming it had violated Syrian airspace. The incident, which resulted in the death of the two Turkish pilots flying the plane, led to a round of recriminations between Ankara and Damascus, as well as between Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party and the opposition Republican People’s Party, which has sharply criticized Erdogan’s handling of the crisis that has been unfolding to the south of Turkey’s border over the past eighteen months. Garnering fewer headlines, meanwhile, has been Turkey’s support for Syria’s opposition. Since fighting broke out in Syria last year, Istanbul has emerged as a hub for Syrian opposition figures as well as for British and American officials funneling aid to them.
Within Turkey, people are divided on the wisdom of Erdogan’s approach to Syria. Erdogan, whose political career has been marked by efforts to bring Sunni Islamic religiosity back into the public sphere of secular Turkey, has been accused of exploiting the Syrian crisis in order to topple the Shiite-dominated (but secular-nationalist) Assad regime. The goal, it is argued, is to replace the Assads with a Sunni-dominated government in Syria which shares Erdogan’s religious convictions and which would support, presumably, the efforts of Turkey’s Prime Minister to play a larger role in the politics of the Middle East more generally. Others, meanwhile, point to the mini-Cold War that has been developing between Russia and the United States over the Syrian crisis, and fear that Erdogan will be only too eager to make common cause with the United States in playing an active, military role in dislodging Assad. 

The stakes are high. The specter of the country’s national interests being sacrificed, through war, to the political machinations of outside powers is one which resonates deeply in Turkey, where the catastrophic end to the Ottoman Empire has long been presented as an object lesson regarding the dangers of getting involved in foreign-sponsored military entanglements in the region.

Given the mess that a war with Syria could well bring, it seems unlikely that Erdogan would actually go to war unless government forces in Syria began an actual attack against Turkey. Instead, it seems more likely that Erdogan will use this latest round of violence as an opportunity to press the international community for support for Erdogan’s proposal to establish international safe zones inside Syria.


By creating safe zones in Syria, Erdogan would make great headway towards his real goal, which is to dislodge the Syrian crisis from Turkey’s borders. Not only has the ongoing violence thus far sent an estimated 100,000 Syrians into refugee camps in Turkey, but the opening of Turkey’s border with Syria may also have provided opportunities for Syrian-based PKK fighters, who wish to carve a Kurdish state out of Turkey’s southeastern borderlands. In the past, the Syrian government has provided material support to the PKK, and the possibility that Assad would play the PKK card against Ankara has got to form part of Erdogan’s policymaking calculus right now.
Throughout, Turkey’s experiences in northern Iraq loom large. Since the mid-1990s, successive governments in Turkey have maintained military bases in northern Iraq, taking their fight against the PKK outside of Turkey’s borders.  At a time when Ankara is facing pressure from Baghdad  to close these bases, the recent violence on the Syrian-Turkish border may have provided Erdogan with an opportunity to press for a similar arrangement in Syria. The “safe zones” proposed for Syria by Erdogan may end up, if they ever come to fruition, housing much more than just refugees.

At the very least, however, my sense is that what Erdogan is mainly concerned about is regaining control of Turkey's frontier with Syria.
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