Not war, but serious enough
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s denouncing of the al-Assad regime in Syria as a visible and present danger to Turkey’s security, “as well as to his own people,” marks an escalation in tension between the two neighbors, following Syria’s downing of a Turkish military reconnaissance plane last week.
Erdoğan said that new rules of engagement for the Turkish Armed Forces had been put into effect and that every military activity on the Turkish border would be interpreted as a threat. This is the highest alert status for border troops, according to military experts talking to the Hürriyet Daily News; Turkish troops now have a license to shoot at will at any military border violation from the Syrian side.
Erdoğan’s denouncement is a reference to the “self-defense” clause (Article 51 of the U.N. Charter) of the United Nations charter, especially when read together with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
This is the second time in recent Turkish history that it has made an unnamed reference to the self-defense clause, and the first one was against Syria too. That was on Oct. 1, 1998 during the opening of the new legislative term of Parliament. Then-Turkish President Süleyman Demirel openly threatened Syria for its harboring of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). That time, Egypt and Iran intervened and Hafez “Father” al-Assad had to extradite Öcalan on the sixth day. The Turkish army was put on alert that time, too.
This time the situation is a bit different. The al-Assad regime has had trouble within the country for more than a year now, and according to U.N. observers the situation has turned into a civil war. Turkey has already shifted its position against the regime from the beginning, opening its territories not only for refugees but also for the Syrian National Council, the main opposition body, and what is called the Free Syrian Army, the opposition’s military wing that is mainly run by defecting former Syrian military officers. Erdoğan said yesterday that from now on Turkey was going to give every kind of support to the Syrian opposition, without specifically mentioning the supply of weapons.
In addition, Russia, which does not want to lose its only Mediterranean navy and intelligence presence in the Syrian port of Tartus, is backing the Syrian government, despite the open backing Turkey received from NATO yesterday. In a way, it is turning into a proxy war or a small-scale Cold War between the U.S. and Russia.
It is not war yet, but the situation is tense enough. Any violation of the Turkish border by the Syrian military could end up in a hot conflict, in which global partners might be in a position to have to pick sides.