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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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Tension has steadily risen for months along Turkey's long shared border with Syria, spiking with the Syrian shoot-down of a Turkish jet fighter this summer and again last week as Turkey responded to Syrian artillery shells landing on its side of the border. Turkey says it doesn't want war, but it is far from clear where the tit-for-tat with Syria will stop.

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The incident is the latest development in what has become a proxy war between President Bashar al-Assad's regime and allies Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, and its opponents, who are backed by Turkey, the US, the European Union, and rich Persian Gulf states.

Turkey hosts the Syrian opposition and has facilitated supplies to the rebel Free Syrian Army, which is fighting to topple Mr. Assad in a 20-month uprising that has turned into a global tug-of-war.

But it was Turkey's decision to force a Syrian passenger plane to land in Turkey overnight on Oct. 10 that has analysts using the word "escalation." Turkey confiscated what it claims was illegal military equipment en route from Moscow, though it has yet to make its findings public. Syria accused Turkey of "air piracy," while Russia demanded an explanation.  

Chief of Staff Gen. Necdet Ozel visited the border the day of the plane grounding and said Turkey would respond "with greater force" if Syrian shells continued to land in Turkey. Reuters reported today that two jet fighters had been scrambled after a Syrian helicopter fired on a Syrian border town. The Turkish parliament last week authorized troop deployments beyond Turkey's borders.

The risks are high for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, not long after the anti-Assad rebellion began, reversed his government's friendly policy toward "brother" Assad to cheerlead for the opposition – figuring that Assad would in short order go the way of removed Arab Spring dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The Turkish government "assumed this would be a very fast process [and] wanted to have some stake," so began a "proactive involvement in this process. Actually, this calculation turned out to be wrong," says Ersin Kalaycioglu, a political science professor at Sabanci University in Istanbul.

"Now we are into this mess up to our waists, probably, if not our neck. [Turkish leaders] don't want to get out of it very easily and they are afraid of losing face," says Prof. Kalaycioglu. 

Poor relations, combined with "a few accidents, and a few [incorrect] assumptions and decisions, could go all the way to a greater escalation and perhaps even war, and therefore it's a very unnerving process," says Kalaycioglu. The Erdogan government has been making "one error after another, as far a Syria is concerned." 

Mr. Erdogan sought yesterday to explain the diversion of the Syrian passenger plane by stating that "munitions" destined for Syria's Ministry of Defense were among the items onboard the flight, sent by Russia's state arms exporter, and that "carrying such materials through our airspace is against international rules."

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