Syrian forces shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet over international waters last Friday – and then shot at a second plane searching for the first one. It was a startling escalation of what has mostly been an internal conflict in Syria sparked 16 months ago by peaceful pro-democracy protests.
So how did Turkey, a democracy ruled by an Islamic party, respond to this provocative act?
It was NATO – that club of democracies, formally called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Its secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, called Syria’s action “unacceptable.” All of NATO joined in saying the episode was “another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard for international norms, peace and security, and human life.”
Meanwhile, the Security Council, where antidemocracy Russia and China hold veto power, was silent. In fact, the Council’s representative, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was left on his own to try to plot the next move on Syria. He plans to convene the Council’s big powers and a few Middle East nations in Geneva this weekend for yet another push at compromise with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Despite the messy mix of fighters and dissidents in Syria, one stark fact still influences this struggle. Enough Syrians want liberty and democracy enough to be killed by Assad forces in their homes, on the streets, or in armed rebellion. An estimated 10,000 have so far been killed, about the same number of Allied troops killed in the 1944 invasion of Normandy.
Turkey’s military might and its 550-mile border with Syria make it a key player to any solution. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried hard to persuade Mr. Assad to allow political reform, only to have Assad break his promises. Now Turkey is letting its territory be used to shelter some 33,000 Syrian refugees and as a launching ground for Syrian rebels.
As the Arab Spring sputters along, democracies like Turkey are being forced to clearly take sides and join together, often outside the UN. NATO is one convenient forum, especially when one of its members is attacked.
But other democratic nations can also unite in making sure this struggle isn’t one of all countries simply seeking their “national interests,” but that it remain a universal cause for freedom.
Is Russia coming around to this point? A Moscow consultancy with ties to the military, the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, issued a report this week suggesting that Russia has few essential interests in Syria.
The world need only remind itself of the scenes of crowds in Egypt and Tunisia after their recent free elections to be reminded of what’s at stake in Syria. The dark contrast to those joyous images are the regular reports of women and children massacred in Syria.
The current Annan plan is aimed at easing Assad out of power before a full civil war erupts. That has become more difficult since the Annan-brokered cease-fire in April has brought more violence, not less, and the Syrian Air Force has downed the jet of a nearby democracy.
In the end, the real power in Syria won’t be either diplomacy or violence. It will be the firm affirmation of the need for liberty, not just by Syrians but by those countries that are already free.