Cenk Sidar Turkey-Syria tension highlights risks to global stability
June 30, 2012


Tensions between Turkey and Syria have escalated once again this week. The hostility between Ankara and Damascus boiled over on June 22 after Syrian artillery shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom jet off the Mediterranean coast, claiming a border violation. Turkey has conceded that its jet, allegedly unarmed and on a routine national radar-testing mission, strayed into Syrian skies but insisted that it was in international airspace when it was downed. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has asserted that the plane was downed 13 nautical miles outside of Syria, when Syrian territorial space extends only 12 nautical miles. Syria contested this account, saying that a surface-to-air weapon with a range of less than two miles brought down the plane.

The incident has prompted stern diplomatic condemnation both from within Turkey and the Western world. However, Turkey’s response overall was restrained and calculated. Turkey invoked Article 4 of the NATO treaty, which provides for consultations with the allies when one is attacked or threatened, avoiding citing the much stronger Article 5, in which an attack on one member is considered an attack on all NATO countries and obliges a concerted military response. On June 26, at an emergency meeting of NATO convened to discuss a response, while the alliance members condemned Syria, the consensus seemed to rule out military retaliation. The same day, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during his address to the members of parliament, stated with hardened rhetoric that Syria has become a military threat to Turkey, and that the rules of engagement of the military have been adjusted accordingly. While this could potentially create further tension that could lead to actual confrontation, it is unlikely that Turkey will want to go that far, especially considering that it chose a calculated response even in the heat of the events.

The incident reflects longstanding fears that Syria’s internal conflict will eventually draw in its neighbors and even further disrupt the region’s delicate balance of power. Another important implication of the incident was the fact that it finally brought the issue to the NATO agenda, when as recently as last month’s Chicago summit, Syria got only a brief mention. While it is unlikely that NATO will actually take any significant steps regarding the issue, the fact that it is under discussion is an important development on its own.

Deciphering Turkey’s response
Turkey’s calculated response came as a surprise to many, given Erdogan’s record of fiery statements in the wake of similar incidents in the past. Turkey’s response to the Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israeli commandos attacked a ship bound from Turkey to the blockaded Gaza Strip, was to demand an apology and compensation. Turkish officials did not even bother to make either of those demands this time. This makes clear that after the country’s relations with the Bashar al-Assad regime turned from friend to foe in the span of a year, Turkey has now completely written off Assad’s regime. Another potential sanction that Turkey could have turned to is the country’s leverage over Syrian water sources and electricity supply through its dams on the Euphrates River in the southeast. However, this would have mainly affected the Syrian people and thus contradicted the country’s hitherto vocal opposition to Assad’s violence against his own citizens.

The role of Russia and global implications
Syria’s aggression also underscores the importance of Russia’s support for the Assad regime. The air defense system that shot down the Turkish jet was provided by Russia. Syria’s air defenses have been evaluated by the Pentagon as one of the most developed in the world, and Russia’s support has been an important factor in that. Russia has been criticized several times by Western countries for its logistical and weapons support to the Assad regime, including a dispute which stemmed from a Russian ship carrying attack helicopters and air defense systems destined for Syria. Russian officials have maintained that they are only fulfilling long-agreed contracts in delivering supplies to Syria, and are not in breach of UN sanctions because the ship was carrying air defense systems, which can be used only for repelling foreign aggression and not against peaceful demonstrators.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced on June 26 that he will be participating in the emergency meeting on Syria scheduled to take place this weekend in Geneva. Before that meeting, Lavrov will be meeting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on June 29 to discuss the situation. According to Russian sources, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan also discussed Syria in a phone call on June 26. Given Moscow’s insistence on supporting the Assad regime for so long, SGA believes it is unlikely for Russia to change its position at the meeting in Geneva, especially now that the international community’s lack of determined response was reaffirmed.

The Syrian crisis and the latest incident have also highlighted the underlying political dynamics in the region, which point to the deterioration of the relations between Russia and US. The US has shifted its global strategic priorities, as was underlined in the Pentagon’s new strategic doctrine, to the Asia Pacific region and has increased its reliance on its allies in other key regions, including the Middle East. As we underlined in our analysis in March, this doctrine puts Turkey in a key position for US foreign policy interests. The Syrian crisis has put Turkey in the leading role in the Western camp, even against its will at times. With Russia becoming more assertive in foreign policy in Putin’s new term as president, the cracks in the country’s bilateral relations with the US have become more visible, showing a downward trend that has reached its nadir with the Syrian crisis. The latest developments show that the competing interests of the traditional rivals risk turning a regional conflict into a strong destabilizing factor on a global scale.

High stakes for Turkey and the region
By now, it is clear that a military operation is not Turkey’ s preferred response. Military engagement seems possible for these countries only within the framework of the UN, where Russia and China have blocked the way so far, and in any case there is a fear of a military intervention turning into a regional conflict also involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Several reasons might have played into Turkey’s decision to hold back. The lack of willingness by the international community to intervene in Syria has left Turkey alone in a possible military response to the incident. The current uncertainties in the Middle East, the refugee situation along Turkey’s borders, and the explosive nature of the conflict, which could have easily brought in regional actors like Iran, Israel or even Russia, make the stakes very high. Additionally, there is a high risk that an open conflict would severely affect Turkey’s ties with the Kurds in the region, with possibly destabilizing consequences for the country’s own Kurdish population. With the current stalemate in the government’s negotiations with the Kurds and increasing attacks by the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—only last week, eight Turkish soldiers were killed in a PKK attack in Hakkari province—the last thing Turkey needs is more tension in the region. 

Turkey’s economic concerns
Economic factors are also driving Turkey’s restraint. The country depends on Russia for more than 65% of its natural gas imports, and open conflict with Syria could hurt Ankara’s relationship with Moscow. Given this, and the overall dependence of Turkey’s economy on external financing, it is understandable why Turkish leaders chose to play down the incident; they did not want to risk creating a significant stability crisis that would certainly have scared away investors.  Especially at a time when the Turkish government is strongly focusing on economic growth and needs financing for its large-scale, ambitious infrastructure projects, Turkey would not be willing to risk further instability in its region. The country runs a high current account deficit, which widened to a record high of 10% of GDP last year and is largely foreign-financed. The  tourism sector, one of the major contributors to economic growth, has already taken a hit as travelers fearful of war with Syria cancel their travel plans. It is clear that an actual conflict would make things even worse for the Turkish economy. 

Implications for Syria
As for Syria, it was able to use the incident to demonstrate that its defensive weapons are capable and willing to engage perceived threats—underlining the fact that should foreign powers hope to repeat the kind of military intervention that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, they would first need to launch an overwhelming assault on Syria's air defenses. The incident will probably be used by the Assad regime to demonstrate its persistence.  It is interesting that the incident happened days after a New York Times article argued that CIA agents located in Turkey were facilitating the supply of guns and information to the Syrian opposition. WhileSyrian officials have claimed that they were unable to identify the plane, it had used the standard IFF system, which makes that argument difficult to believe. Some analysts think Syria targeted the plane solely to demonstrate the effectiveness of its air defense.

On June 27, Assad declared that the country was in a state of war. We believe this is an attempt by the regime to pave the way for further violence and use of power against the opposition in the country. Having demonstrated its military capabilities against a strong regional power, the Assad regime will not hesitate to step up the offensive against the rebels and he seems to have given the order to the army to crush the rebels. 

Military measures, but no open conflict
Turkey’s invocation of Article 4 was a way of avoiding military confrontation while still assuaging an angry public, keeping up the promise of “decisive action,” and maintaining the the image of Turkey as regional power, especially after the disastrous Mavi Marmara incident. Erdogan’s latest statements indicated that Syrian military assets are now considered an open threat and would be shot at as they approach the border area. It is unclear, but possible that he was implying the creation of a buffer zone over the border, which Syrian troops would have to avoid and to which the rebels would want to bring the fight, increasing the chances of a second incident. The whole responsibility of a confrontation would seem to fall on the shoulders of the Syrian side. Military measures seem to fit the distinction Erdogan has been making between the Assad regime and theSyrian people in his discourse; nonmilitary sanctions, such as cutting the supply of electricity or water, would be to the detriment of the latter.

Syria would also have to bear in mind the warnings from NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen that the alliance is in solidarity with Turkey. NATO’s possible involvement could appear as a way to sidestep the UN Security Council at a time when Kofi Annan’s negotiated peace plan is not working. On the other hand, Damascus has warned that a hostile NATO should remember that Syrian land is considered sacred by its troops, and Iran has spoken against the involvement of Westerners in a dispute between two Muslim countries. Therefore there is a possibility that Syria and its allies would call Turkey’s raise, after which an isolated Turkey would have to backtrack. After all, the latest developments clearly showed that, while very concerned about the situation, NATO is not willing to intervene militarily.

Turkey’s foreign policy put to a stern test in Syria
SGA believes an open military conflict remains unlikely. Many analysts remember 1998, when in a similar move, Turkey placed military units along the Syrian border to push for the extraction of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK. In that case, the Syrians eventually gave in, but circumstances are clearly different now. It remains to be seen how the threat at the border will be defined by the Turkish military under the new rules of engagement. In any case, while a more controlled and calculated foreign policy is for the better of Turkey and the region, the incident is likely to put Turkey’s new assertive foreign policy in jeopardy. While Davutoglu seeks to maintain the illusion of a peaceful Middle East under Turkish leadership, Turkey’s handling of the Syrian crisis from the beginning demonstrated the shortcomings of Davutoglu’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy. It was particularly striking that the Turkish government maintained very good relations with the Syriangovernment up until the Arab Spring protests began in the country. Turkey’s sudden change of position seemed to have stemmed from worries about standing on the wrong side of history, not a genuine concern for the Syrian people, who have suffered for a long time under the Assad regime even when the two countries’ relations were good. The government seems to be lost in a self-fulfilled illusion as Ibrahim Kalin, chief advisor to Prime Minister Erdogan said on June 27 that the “zero problems” policy was still in effect, emphasizing that the relations with Syria were very good until the Arab Spring started.

Commentators have started asking questions about whether the country can really back the aggressive statements of its leaders. Several foreign media outlets have already raised questions about Turkey’s inactions, and many wonder whether Turkey even has a plan of action. The latest reports from the region on June 28 suggest that Turkey has started to deploy anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers along its border with Syria.  It remains to be seen whether they will be put to use, although it is more likely that they are simply a show of force from the Turkish side. One thing is for certain: With NATO so far staying out, the Annan Plan in shambles, and the UN option blocked by Russia and China, a resolution to the Syrian conflict does not appear clearly on the horizon, and Turkey will remain on the front line of a complicated and dangerous situation.<<

Cenk Sidar
Sidar Global Advisors
June 30, 2012