As the tension between Turkey and Syria reaches to new heights, public figures in Turkey are discussing how far things should go. Is the downing of a Turkish jet “casus belli,” a cause of war? If it is not, what should Turkey do if the Syrian military violates the new “rules of engagement” that Prime Minister Erdoğan announced this week? Should “Turkey’s wrath” that Erdoğan spoke about go beyond words and turn into action?
Most Turks who comment on these questions give very pacifist answers. A military conflict, they insist, must be avoided at all costs. Quite a few of them even see the tension between Turkey and the Syrian regime as a conspiracy by “unseen powers” to drag Turkey into a destructive war. All in all, there is hardly anybody in mainstream Turkey who calls for a military action against Syria.
Therefore, Turks might be taken as a people “from Venus” and not “from Mars,” invoking the famous analogy by Robert Kagan. (Kagan had defined Europeans as pacifist Venutians, and Americans as ready-to-fight Martians.)
Recent Turkish history would also seem to testify to that verdict. Since the founding of the Republic in 1923, Turkey has avoided military conflicts. The only exception was the occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974, in “Operation Peace,” which had the intention of saving Turkish Cypriots from ethnic cleansing by militant Greek
nationalists. Turkey also sent troops to Korea in the early 1950s and to Afghanistan in the early 2000s, under the auspices of the United Nations and NATO
respectively. But none of these were wars against a bordering country.
However there is a tragic downside to this largely peaceful story. Yes, the Turkish military avoided foreign targets, but it hit many domestic ones. Turkey, it can be even said, was occupied twice (in 1960 and 1980) by its own tanks and troops. These invaders abolished the Parliament, executed a prime minister and other elected politicians, and imprisoned and tortured many thousands of Turkish citizens. An average foreign army occupying Turkey would probably not do worse than that.
In other words, Turkey’s traditionally peaceful foreign policy might not be testimony that Turks are bleeding heart liberals who would never even touch guns. Perhaps there was just enough war at home, and insufficient power to spend abroad.
This implies that a Turkey which resolves its internal tensions and relocates its military’s attention from internal to external threats perhaps might be more muscular. And, according to some commentators, this transformation has already begun under the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP).
But does Turkey need to be muscular country? Or rather should it intentionally choose to be “from Venus,” as the majority of Turkish pundits argue?
Well, I am not a war-monger, but let me get a bit unconventional here. War is, yes, a very bad thing. But sometimes it prevents worse things. The war in Serbia in 1999, for example, was a good war, as it saved the Kosovars from slaughter. The war on Gaddafi just last year was helpful as well, for it helped the Libyan revolution succeed and prevented a very bloody restoration of the old regime.
Similarly, a war on the al-Assad regime could be a just campaign to end the ongoing slaughter of the innocents in Syria. Turkey can not launch this by itself, for sure. But I see no reason to rule it out in advance, and thus make the al-Assad regime feel more secure to keep on killing even more unabashedly. Like the Americans do with Iran, we should perhaps rather “keep all options on the table.”