Image Credit: Dana A. Shams/©Gulf News

I attended the Istanbul World Forum and was surprised by the pessimistic mood in Turkey where the most common question was not if, but when, the country would find itself at war with Syria.

As tensions rise along the 900-kilometre Turkish-Syrian border, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, risks being forced to the frontline — not only by the Bashar Al Assad regime, but also by the US, Saudi Arabia and other countries who would like to see Al Assad fall, but are currently reluctant to join the fight themselves.

The Turkish Army has dispatched tanks and anti-aircraft missile launchers to the area, following days of cross-border spats. Earlier, Turkey deployed two F-16 fighter planes after a Syrian Army helicopter opened fire on a Syrian border town, and last Saturday, Syria banned Turkish planes from its airspace.

The Turkish parliament has authorised military operations, but Erdogan has little to gain, politically, from a full-blown confrontation with Syria. The main opposition, the Turkish Republican People’s Party, is firmly against it as are the majority of Turkish people. War would impede their country’s remarkable progress and eat into an economy currently set to become the world’s tenth most successful by 2050.

Over the weekend, Erdogan castigated the UN for its “failure” to act on Syria, comparing the present situation to Srebrenica in 1995 when UN peacekeeping forces abandoned thousands of Bosnian Muslims to Serbian troops, resulting in the massacre of more than 8,000 boys and men.

China and Russia have vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions aimed at reining in Al Assad and remain resolutely behind Damascus. Moscow sold Syria $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) worth of arms last year, but Turkish diplomats hoped to persuade Russia to soften its position. Moscow-Ankara relations were greatly soured last Wednesday, however, when Turkey forced a Damascus-bound Russian passenger plane to land as it entered its airspace, claiming it was carrying weapons for the regime.

Al Assad, on the other hand, has nothing to lose, having alienated all but his most die-hard allies with his appalling, reckless violence against his own people. He may even be seeking to ignite a regional war to detract from the country’s internal conflict. If Al Assad plays the Pan-Arab nationalist card — rather than escalating the Sunni-Shiite divide — Turkey risks isolation.

The “Fox of Damascus” remains a dangerously clever strategist. In July, he granted Syria’s northern Kurdish regions de facto autonomy and Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) fighters from Iraq were allowed to enter Syria’s northern Kurdish regions and set up bases along the Turkish border. This move secured support for the regime among Syria’s Kurds and created a new threat to Turkey.

Al Assad has threatened to arm the PKK with anti-aircraft weapons and M-600 ballistic missiles (clones of Iran’s Fateh-110) which have a 250-km range. Syria provided Hezbollah with M-600s during its conflict with Israel in 2006.

Turkey has provided sanctuary for more than 100,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the violence and has mooted the possibility of a UN-controlled “safety corridor” along the border. The UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, clearly thinking along similar lines, plans a 3,000 strong international peacekeeping force, but to deploy it would require a UN Security Council resolution which Russia and China would almost certainly veto.

As Brahimi flies between the region’s major players, his mission appears to have no better chance of success than that of his predecessor Kofi Annan, who resigned in August citing lack of support for his peace plan among the major powers.

As Turkey stands up to its violent neighbour, its erstwhile allies are keeping a low profile. The Friends of Syria group, consisting of 100 countries, has not met since July. The promising “contact group” established by Egypt’s President Mohammad Mursi, comprising Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been hampered by the antipathy between Riyadh and Tehran.

Turkey is a member of Nato, which is committed to “collective defence”. Under Article 5 of the treaty, ‘If a Nato ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members’. In practice, Article 5 has been invoked only once, in the aftermath of 9/11.

Nato’s response to the Syrian aggression against Turkey has yet to take a clear form. Last week, the Nato Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said Ankara could rely on Nato “solidarity”, but in the absence of detail, this support seemed largely symbolic. The “plans in place” Rasmussen referred to are general contingency plans rather than a tailor-made strategy for this crisis.

Recent months have seen Turkey moving closer to another potential comrade in arms — Egypt. Ankara has provided the struggling, post-revolutionary nation with a $2 billion loan, but President Mursi is facing growing unrest at home and is unlikely to take any major foreign policy decisions just now.

I am reminded of the traditional Arabic tale in which an angry crowd, led by a brave man, marched on the palace to complain about the King’s pet elephant which was terrorising the community with its violent rampages. As they neared the palace, numbers dropped off; those that continued were struck dumb with awe and fear when the furious king, accompanied by terrifying guards, demanded to know why they had spoiled his afternoon nap. To punish his cowardly companions and to show them the cost of fear, the leader told the king that they thought the elephant was lonely and begged him to provide a mate so that his pet could fill the entire land with his offsprings.

Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation, published by Saqi books.