A small success story: Syrian helicopter downed
When a Turkish reconnaissance jet was shot down by the Syrian air defense system on July 22, 2012, Turkey gave no military response, for which the government and the military were regularly criticized. The reason behind the inaction was not lack of military capacity, but the fact that the leader who had to take political responsibility was too preoccupied and the soldiers were professionally too careful.
The downing of the Turkish jet was a sudden and real surprise. That the military opted or had to settle for inaction was largely caused by their “experience in prison,” which taught them to avoid taking responsibility. The ongoing “conspiracy” and “coup” prosecutions of the generals shaped soldiers’ behaviour. In situations where politicians did not openly take responsibility and the legal procedure required for action was left incomplete, if things got out of control, generals could easily be blamed for provocation and find themselves in jail. At the very least, a symbolic lynching in the media was guaranteed.
Secondly, as the event unfolded, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was abroad. No one else could take the political risk and make a decision so, understandably, no one did. Everyone waited for Erdoğan to return and decide. And when he did, it was already too late for a reprisal.
In the following days, when asked to retaliate against Syrian shelling, the Turkish Chief of General Staff reminded the government that legal procedures had to be completed before taking an action.
This “gentle reminder” probably upset Erdoğan, because the motion that authorized military action was prepared not by the General Staff or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but at the party headquarters. Parliament then accepted the motion and the government thus authorized the General Staff to take action if necessary.
The statements of both Turkish and Syrian General Staffs after the downing of the Syrian helicopter show that the helicopter entered Turkish territory for a brief moment, that is, for a couple of minutes. The Turkish side did not miss this “target of opportunity” and shot down the helicopter. This shows that the decision making process now runs more smoothly and the required legal procedures have been completed. It seems that the General Staff has learnt to become a “learning organization.”
It is very unlikely that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will regard this as a problem of “survival” and give a harsh response to Turkey. For Erdoğan, however, it is a different matter. After big disappointments concerning Syrian policies, this event became a small success story that could be pitched for public opinion. Perhaps this could repair the feeling of humiliation suffered in June 2012. Still, this story cannot begin to deal with the massive headache that is surely set to be caused by Syria for many years to come.