How Turkish army put boots on Syrian ground

How Turkish army put boots on Syrian ground

In a recent act of heroism, the Turkish military headquarters proudly announced that its howitzers (with 40 km firing range) shelled a Syrian missile battery (180 km away). 

Even more heroically than that, at the weekend, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s military convoy, protected by helicopters and armored vehicles, stepped foot deep into the Syrian soil: 253 meters from the Turkish side. They were paying a visit to the tomb of Süleyman Şah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. The tomb had been successfully abducted by a military operation 37 km from the Turkish-Syrian border and relocated in its present place. 

Mr. Davutoğlu’s brave visit to enemy land came at a time when the entire world was discussing the merits and demerits of a potential Turkish-Saudi (ground and air) military offensive against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. Luckily, Mr. Davutoğlu ruled out that option. 

In a recent article for the Gatestone Institute I tried to explain that this was not a good idea, not realistic either. (“A Turkish-Saudi Military Offensive on Syria?” Gatestone Institute, May 10, 2015):

“The timing of the alleged Turkish-Saudi offensive against Syria (but actually targeted more against Iran) looks unrealistic, given Iran’s looming nuclear deal with the West.

“From a Turkish perspective, there are more practical reasons why war with Syria is probably a distant possibility. First, the Turkish government faces critical parliamentary elections on June 7, and politically it cannot afford Turkish soldiers returning home in coffins.

“Second, and more importantly, there are simple military facts that can turn a Turkish military campaign against Syria into a national disaster. The Syrian side of the Turkish border with Syria is home to more than 20 different radical Islamist and Kurdish groups … most of which are hostile to Turkey to different degrees. A cross-border operation would be too risky for the Turkish military.

“Worse, any Turkish air raid to bomb Damascus would expose Turkish aircraft to the risk of being hit by the powerful air defenses in Syria. Turkish warplanes are not outfitted with the critical stand-off jammer systems that would blind enemy radars. Half of the squadrons of Turkish fighters that would fly over Syrian skies may not be able to return home safely.

“Then there is the bigger risk of Syrian missiles. The Scud that hit Turkish territory on March 25 proved that the US/NATO Patriot missiles stationed in southern and eastern Turkey could only protect the areas in their immediate vicinity. But Assad not only has Scuds he can fire from a range of 180-200 kilometers; he has in his arsenal unknown numbers of Scud-C ballistic missiles, which have a range of 500 kilometers, putting several big Turkish cities ‘within range.’

“Turkey simply does not have a long-range anti-missile defense architecture to counter Syrian (and/or Iranian) missiles. Being a member of the alliance, it can rely on naval NATO assets to counter such threats, but that would be too risky a gamble.

“It is true that the Erdoğan administration has been weighing military options against Assad for the past couple of years. It is also true that Erdoğan has an obsession about getting rid of Assad and is not the most peaceful leader in the region. All the same, the Turkish president is not a suicidal man.”

For Turkey’s own safety Mr. Davutoğlu should learn to be content with small tourist excursions into Syria. He can wear military uniform if that would please him more. He can even visit Süleyman Şah’s tomb more regularly. Flying helicopters and sending armored vehicles to protect the prime minister and a small unit of soldiers 253 meters from the border will be fine too.

The prime minister should remember why he had to give orders for the relocation of the tomb just 37 km away from the border. If that unchartered land was not safe for Turkish soldiers standing guard there, it will not be safe for combat units either.