Like most Western and Sunni Middle Eastern leaderships, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wants Syria’s savage Bashar Al Assad regime gone. However, he differs from his counterparts in that he is ready to put his money where his mouth is. He is prepared to intervene where others hesitate to tread. His credentials as a humanitarian are solid — his country was the first to open its borders to small numbers of Syrian refugees in April 2011 and, in anticipation of a much larger influx, began constructing tent cities to house fleeing Syrian families that summer.
Moreover, Erdogan wasted little time in opting to side with Syrian rebels against his new best friend, Al Assad, thus severing hard-won diplomatic, military and trade alliances. And as a consequence, Turkey’s relations with Tehran and Moscow have gone south. Erdogan should be commended for being on the right side of history, but is it true that he is acting alone? What motive does he have for ratcheting up the ante with his neighbour? Is he itching to take his country into a bilateral war for which the Turkish public has little appetite? Or has he been appointed by Turkey’s western allies to spearhead a conflict in which all Nato member countries will ultimately be involved whether they like it or not?
Official statements emanating from the US, the European Union and Nato give the impression that military intervention in Syria is not on the cards. The Barack Obama administration has said it loud and clear that Al Assad must go but, due in part to domestic concerns, Obama does not want to be seen initiating yet another US-led Middle East conflict, especially one that could ignite Russian ire — or worse. In reality, if he were “dragged” kicking and screaming into a noble enterprise to save the Syrian people, he would emerge as a “war president” during upcoming presidential elections, which could serve to give him an edge. Historically, Americans always support their Commander-in-Chief in times of war.
Whatever Erdogan decides could be a game changer. Should Turkey become embroiled in a conflict with the Syrian regime, it will not stand alone. Nato will be obliged to come to its aid. This was confirmed by the body’s Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, during a defence meeting. “Obviously Turkey can rely on Nato solidarity,” he said. “We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey, if necessary.” Not even Moscow could object to Nato rushing to the “defence” of one of its members.
Let us be honest. As despicable as Al Assad undoubtedly is by any standard, the last thing he wants is an all-out war with a military mammoth like Turkey, capable of bringing Nato’s full force on his head. Syrian shelling that caused the death of five Turkish villagers on October 3 was accidental, a tragedy for which Damascus accepted responsibility and apologised with alacrity. Yet, the way Erdogan is reacting, one would think his country had been deliberately targeted.
For days, the Turkish military has been firing artillery in Syria’s direction, Turkey’s armed forces have been placed on a state of alert and 250 tanks and artillery have been deployed along the Syrian border. “We have retaliated and if [the shelling] continues, we’ll respond more strongly,” warned the Turkish Armed Forces Chief-of-Staff, General Necdet Ozel. It’s notable, too, that the Turkish parliament has blessed cross-border military operations.
Ankara’s use of F16s to force down a Syrian Airlines Airbus en route to Damascus from Moscow, on the pretext the civilian airliner might be carrying weapons, was an unexpected show of Turkish bravado. “We are determined to control weapons transfers to a regime that carries out such brutal massacres against civilians. It is unacceptable that such a transfer is made using our airspace,” the Turkish Foreign Minister said in response to Russian and Syrian cries of piracy.
The Erdogan government has few qualms about antagonising the Al Assad regime. The surprise is its apparent willingness to take on the Russians. The Turkish premier’s recent attack on the UN Security Council (UNSC) for its failure to adequately respond to the unfolding humanitarian tragedy within Syria was another dig at Moscow that, together with Beijing, has been using its veto to block a slew of anti-Syrian resolutions at the US. “If we leave the issue to the vote of one or two members of the permanent five at the United Nations Security Council, then the aftermath of Syria will be very hazardous and humanity will write it down in history with unforgettable remarks,” he said while demanding an overhaul of the UNSC.
No, Erdogan is no lone Quixotic figure. He knows he is being cheered-on by the great and the powerful, whose ambitions are being thwarted by the Security Council’s inability to act. It is pertinent that the US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, has admitted his country has positioned 150 military planners in Jordan ostensibly to assist Amman in the event of violence spilling over from Syria. Likewise, Britain has deployed a contingent of troops there “to protect civilians”. Some pundits believe western allies, in conjunction with Turkey, are making preparations to turn Syria’s airspace into a ‘“no-fly zone” in readiness to strike. The coming weeks may prove them right.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org