Why Syria's regional spillovers could prompt intervention

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.

Burhan Ozbilici/AP
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.'

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.

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.

Third, the Syrian crisis is spilling across the border as refugees also pour into neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, and skirmishes occur in both countries. The US has had a small group of military planners in Jordan since early summer, to help that country with refugees and its own military, and to keep an eye on Syria’s chemical weapons.

The crisis, though, could well reach Europe’s doorstep in the Eastern Mediterranean – casting a harsh light on unresolved disputes hobbling European and American strategy there. The porous nature of the land and sea borders in the region means that large numbers of Syrian refugees may soon appear in Cyprus and Greece, where anti-immigrant sentiment runs high. In this sense, Europe already shares a border with a chaotic Syria. 

Dealing with any violent and nonviolent spillovers will be difficult in the absence of cooperation among Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, and their European and transatlantic partners. In theory, the rotating presidency of the European Union – currently held by Cyprus –  should facilitate preparation for an eastward spread of the Syrian crisis. But the unresolved dispute over divided Cyprus makes any sort of Cypriot-Turkish coordination impossible, and also hampers Turkish-EU and EU-NATO cooperation on security in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Once again, the Cyprus divide has acquired a regional security dimension. Even Russia, hardly enthusiastic about action in Syria, but with strong interests in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean, might eventually see the logic of action to contain these regional risks.

The debate over intervention in Syria is anything but straightforward. In the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, the sheer complexity of the ethnic and sectarian cleavages in Syria deters Western policymakers.

Public opinion is ambivalent at best. The 2012 Transatlantic Trends survey, conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States with the Compagnia di San Paolo, shows that majorities on both sides of the Atlantic, including Turkey, support the UN “right to protect” in international crises. But when asked about the Syrian case, majorities reject intervention.

As the crisis in Syria worsens, and the regional consequences mount, Syria’s dangerous spillovers may well compel a strategy of simply containing the war within Syria’s borders, even as the debate on intervention for “regime change” leaves the international community divided.

Ian O. Lesser is executive director of the Transatlantic Center, the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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