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With Turkey-Syria escalation, worries grow about a tip into war

With Turkey and the Syrian regime on opposite sides of the antigovernment uprising in Syria, flare-ups like the Turkish grounding of a Syrian jet this week carry great risk of tipping the two into open conflict. 

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Yet Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said only that items that "may" have military application were onboard. Turkish media reported communications equipment – information that appeared to be backed up by a Syrian Airlines staff interviewed in Damascus, who described Turkish officials comparing the electronic items to the documents that described them as such. 

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Russia's Kommersant newspaper today said the cargo included radar spare parts for Syria's Russian-made missile-defense systems.

"Turkey has to work really hard to avoid giving the impression that it's escalating the situation," says Hugh Pope, the Turkey analyst for the International Crisis Group in Istanbul. 

"Definitely Turkey's main effort should be to stay within international consensus, do its utmost to try to bring Russia, China, and Iran and all the other players that are part of the problem there onto the same page," says Mr. Pope. "There are signs that Russia is uneasy with the situation, and that Iran is uneasy, and Turkey should build on those.... It's really important for Turkey that it not be seen as part of the Syrian problem." 

Public opinion opposed to war

Opinion polls in Turkey make it clear that Turks – whose nation forms the eastern anchor of the US-commanded NATO alliance – do not want to get involved in a war in Syria that could spread across the region. With some 100,000 Syrian refugees now in Turkey, and more in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, some say that regional consequences of the slow-burn rebellion are already absorbing the region. 

"One of the huge successes of Turkish policy over the last decade is to decouple itself from the difficulties of the Middle East, and prove itself to be an almost-European player," says Pope. "Of course, if Turkey's attacked, and people get killed, then there is a desire for prevention, revenge ... and the responsibility of the leadership in these cases is to guide public opinion and keep things proportionate and not whip up popular sentiment, because there is no good, quick outcome of the events in Syria."

Indeed, the killing of five Turkish civilians last week in the town of Akcakale stirred nationalist sentiments in Turkey, prompted Ankara to call for an emergency meeting of NATO to discuss defensive plans – but also raised new questions about where Turkey's Syria policy was taking it."The calculations done [about a quick Assad exit] in nice offices did not work out on paper," political analyst and Milliyet columnist Semih Idiz told Al Jazeera English.

"But these expectations went awry ... the sectarian dimension kicked in, the fact that Syria proved to have a much more complicated sociology than these other countries kicked in, what was supposed to be a straightforward thing for Turkey ... has in fact turned into some kind of a debacle," says Mr. Idiz.

"[Erdogan] has to internationalize the issue as much as possible, personalize it less, and not concentrate so much on Mr. Assad ... but on the need for stability and peace in the region," adds Idiz. "There is a civil war going on in Syria at this stage, and if you take sides in a civil war, then there is very little contribution that you can make for peace."

*** Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott **

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