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Why Syria's regional spillovers could prompt intervention (+video)

Turkey's forced landing of a Syrian passenger jet from Moscow suspected of carrying military cargo is the latest example of regional spillover from the Syria crisis. The risks of these cascading spillovers may ultimately emerge as the leading rationale for international intervention.

By Ian O. Lesser / October 11, 2012

People gather atop the aircraft steps at a Syrian passenger plane that was forced by Turkish jets to land in Ankara, Turkey, Oct. 10. Turkish jets forced the plane, en route from Moscow, to land on suspicion that it may be carrying weapons. Op-ed contributor Ian O. Lesser writes: 'The risk of a more serious conventional military clash between Turkey and Syria is real.'

Burhan Ozbilici/AP

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The international debate over military intervention in Syria has, understandably, been couched largely in terms of the “responsibility to protect” Syrians from a brutal regime. But there is also a growing risk of spillovers into other countries that could further destabilize an already troubled region – including the Eastern Mediterranean. Taken together, these cascading risks may ultimately emerge as the leading rationale for international action.

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COMMENTARY: Stephen Walt analyzes the many complex and vitally important issues underlying US-Middle East policy as part of the American Conversation Essentials series.

First, despite incentives for caution on both sides, the risk of a more serious conventional military clash between Turkey and Syria is real. Turkey, a key US and European partner and NATO ally, is highly exposed to the consequences of protracted conflict and chaos in Syria. To date, some 90,000 refugees have fled across the border to Turkey. Continuing incidents of direct Syrian attacks and loss of life on Turkish territory, and Turkish retaliation, raise the specter of escalating conflict between Ankara and Damascus.

An incident this week illustrates the wide reach of the Syria crisis. On Wednesday, Turkish military jets forced a Syrian passenger jet from Moscow to land in Ankara. Turkish state-run television reports the jet was carrying military communications equipment. Syria is furious, calling the interception "piracy." Russia, meanwhile, says the cargo was not of Russian origin and is angered by the treatment of the passengers, including Russian nationals.

Given the animosity between both Ankara and Damascus, and the substantial military forces arrayed on either side of the border – Turkey has NATO’s second largest military after the United States – a Turkish-Syrian conflict would represent a dramatic development. At that point, NATO could hardly avoid becoming involved in a key test of alliance commitment to collective defense. 

Second, the wider Syrian crisis is leading to a series of proxy wars – Iran supporting its Syrian ally, President Bashar al-Assad; and Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and others backing the Free Syrian Army and other armed rebel groups. Syrian opposition forces, operating from Turkish territory, are now leading actors in the anti-Assad insurgency.

But the presence of these armed groups is contributing to insecurity in Turkey. Previously prosperous and stable areas in Turkey’s south are experiencing economic crisis and chaotic conditions. Syria appears to have revived its active support for violent operations by the separatist PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in Turkey. Many Turks are convinced that Iran is also playing a part in this strategy.

The likelihood of a protracted conflict in Syria (a decade or more of chaos is not inconceivable) suggests that these sponsored, irregular wars may define the strategic map of the region for some time to come.

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