x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

An old friendship leaves Turkey no choices on Syria

Although Erdogan's war rhetoric on Syria does not necessarily represent a well thought-out policy position, it has undermined Turkey's effectiveness.

Turkey's limited retaliation against Syria, following the deaths of five civilians hit by a Syrian mortar round on Wednesday in a Turkish border town, has not substantially changed the dynamic of relations between Damascus and Ankara. However, it is clear that Turkey, which had previously refrained from responding militarily to mortar shells that fell into its territory, has changed its policy to a degree. It is now responding to any violation of its border with commensurate artillery fire.

Still, both Turkey and Syria are anxious to avoid a direct military conflict; as tragic as the death of the civilians was, these incidents originating from Syria appear to have been the result of stray shelling. The Syrian army is engaged in a bitter civil war, and it is almost to be expected that overstretched military units will be committing an increasing number of errors.

President Bashar Al Assad must know that provoking the Turks into a significant military intervention would risk shifting the balance of power within Syria in favour of the Free Syrian Army rebels. His own overstretched army would have to deal with both the FSA and the Turkish military. Mr Al Assad might think that Turkish intervention could cause Syrians to rally around the flag, or trigger a wave of regional Arab nationalism, but this is extremely unlikely in light of more than 30,000 Syrians killed since protests began last year.

Ankara, on the other hand, is also reticent to intervene militarily. The Turkish public is decidedly against a war, as recent polls have demonstrated. This would hold true even if the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for intervention.

Any major armed intervention would be far too expensive in terms of materiel, casualties and the actual financial cost. The Turkish government has been pressing the United States to impose a no-fly zone because it knows it does not have the wherewithal to do this on its own.

The Syrian air defence network can be suppressed, but only at a significant cost. It would entail the loss of aircraft and, as formidable as the Turkish military may appear to be, it has little if any real combat experience against such defences.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in a difficult situation. He ratcheted up the rhetoric on Mr Al Assad and Syria a year ago and allowed the FSA to use Turkish territory as a base of operations while Saudis and Qataris supplied the rebels with arms and other materiel. But Mr Erdogan did not come up with this policy based on a whim.

His first preference was for Mr Al Assad to remain in power; the two men had established very strong bonds, including family ties, and Turkey had protected the Assad regime against western pressure in the years after the 2005 assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

By his own admission, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has travelled to Damascus more than 60 times, including many trips that were solely intended to help Mr Al Assad to weather the storm of protests. These trips were to no avail as Mr Al Assad refused to heed Turkish advice, even suggestions about cosmetic reforms such as organising sham elections.

The Turks expected - partially because of an exaggerated sense of self-confidence - that once Ankara turned against Mr Al Assad, his regime would crumble relatively quickly. A year ago, Turkish officials, just like many of their western counterparts, thought that the Assad regime would be gone within six months.

A year later, Mr Erdogan does not have much to show for his Syrian approach. He is the spearhead of a coalition of the unwilling that wants Mr Al Assad to go but will not commit the troops to the endeavour. This does not, however, mean that Mr Erdogan was wrong - then or now. He had little choice but to oppose Mr Al Assad after the massacres and the growing refugee problem.

The fact that Turkey borders Syria - and that Mr Al Assad and Mr Erdogan had established a cozy relationship - forced Ankara's hand.

That said, Mr Erdogan's rhetoric, often the result of emotional outbursts and not well-thought policy positions, has undermined Turkey's effectiveness. Mr Erdogan is often ahead of the policy-making process, which creates a problem for Turkey. His words result in policy, and not the other way around.

The danger in the current row over the cross-border shelling is that, once again, Mr Erdogan may lose control of his own rhetoric. An escalation in the war of words - aided and abetted by a jingoistic Turkish press - could lead to an escalation on the ground.

What the Turkish government really hopes is that the United States and Nato will intervene if the crisis escalates, and do the job for Ankara. But the United States will not intervene, now or after the elections, unless there is irrefutable proof of genocide. So Turkey, like everyone else, has to hunker down for a prolonged conflict, although one that will ultimately result in Mr Al Assad's fall.

 

Henri J Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania

On Twitter: @hbarkey