Sunday, October 7, 2012

Rocks and Hard Places - Turkish Edition

I’ve just returned from Turkey and unless you’ve been living on Pluto, the four days of shelling by Syrian forces of Turkish towns, killing civilians, and counter-fire by the Turkish army is big news.  Turkey has warned that it is very close to war and the al-Assad regime must cease its attacks – or else.   The “or else” should be of concern to everyone because it is very clear that the Syrian regime is engaging in desperate measures to stay alive and attempting to provoke a war with Turkey in the hopes of destabilizing Turkey with the help of the PKK in the southeastern part of the country.

Turkey should not take the bait.
The Syrian army, consisting of little more than small units in the region and having lost control of large swathes of territory and border crossings, is in no condition to resist a Turkish assault.  It could be swept from the border area and would likely end up in a burning heap along the roads leading to Damascus.  That is not in the interests of Turkey for several reasons.

The first is that the Turkish economy is growing at 7% and has been doing so for a good part of the last decade.  A war puts the economy at serious risk of losing momentum, if not stopping growth altogether.  The towns along the Syrian border and the southeast in general had been booming until the Assad regime’s struggle for survival brought trade crashing to the ground.
Second, the PKK is under extraordinary pressure both militarily and politically. Turkey maintains military bases inside Iraq (much to Baghdad’s ineffective vocal objections) to counter PKK activities while at the same time Ankara has pursued a policy of inclusion for the Kurds within its borders.  A war puts political stability inside Turkey at risk, would energize the PKK and cause turmoil in large parts of eastern Turkey.

Third, Ankara is clearly aware of the geo-political problems in the region.  The Assad regime is allied with Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Iran has invested considerable money and reputation into the fight – money it can ill afford to lose, not to mention losing the political advantages it has gained since the Iraq war.  Without Russian support, the Assad regime could not continue its policy of slaughter. Russia is a major trading partner of Turkey and furthermore, controls the politics of Armenia which impacts Turkey’s resource rich ally, Azerbaijan.
Fourth, Turkey cannot count on NATO for support.  Although it has the right under international law to defend itself, invoking Article 5 to bring in all of NATO is likely to go nowhere.  The US and Europe, with the probable exception of France, have no stomach for war in the region.  Syria is not Libya and military intervention by NATO – which is the default military organization – would trigger large asymmetrical responses by Iran and its surrogate Hezbollah that would affect Israel and the Gulf.  Turkey would be on its own.

A full scale border crossing, no doubt inflicting what would be crushing losses on the Syrian military, would have economic, social and political repercussions that cannot be predicted, but all of which can be described charitably as not good for Turkey.
The Turkish Parliament has voted in favour of a motion permitting the government to engage in cross-border raids on Syria and in the past few days, the Turkish military has moved additional tanks and mechanized units to the region hoping to send a message.  Prime Minister Erdoğan said yesterday “I am calling once more on the al-Assad regime and its supporters: Don’t dare to test Turkey’s patience,” adding that testing Turkey’s capacity for deterrence would be “a fatal mistake.”  The motion authorizing raids is not a blank check, however; more importantly, It was on the agenda in any event to renew the authorization for the Iraq bases targeting the PKK.  The timing is coincidental. Hopefully, Damascus will get the message.

Russian and Iranian support will not save al-Assad or his regime as rebels continue to seize territory and have failed to be dislodged from Homs, Aleppo or villages along the border with Turkey.  I don’t doubt that Turkey will launch cross-border missions to clear out Syrian military positions  if necessary – but they can be pushed back out of range without doing so and provide leverage so that  the rebel units in the area could take control. 
At the end of the day Turkey needs to show restraint – difficult under the type of provocation pursued by Damascus.  They are trapped between national interest and national honour.  But, Turkey has more to lose than gain if it unleashes its army.   

The Syrian civil war, now a sectarian one as well, will be a swamp which, once sucked into, will be difficult to escape.  Unfortunately, NATO and the West are tired of nation building and the UN is paralyzed by Russian pretensions of being a major power and Chinese fundamental principle of non-interference. Turkey is left with little choice but to deal with the situation that involves a civil war along hundreds of miles of its border and more than 100,000 refugees.  The rest of world will let Turkey sort this out and it does not have a lot of choices for maneuver.  One choice however – massive military intervention – should be avoided.

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