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. 

Osman Orsal/Reuters
Syrians walk after crossing to Turkey by boat on the Orontes river of the Turkish-Syrian border near the village of Hacipasa in Hatay province, Friday, October 12.

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.

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."

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. 

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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