Syria and neo-Ottoman artillery fire

Syria and neo-Ottoman artillery fire

As Bashar al-Assad lingers in power, the Turkish government’s anger and repulsion intensifies. This is not only reflected in the diplomatic realm, but also visible in the refugee camps and its support to armed groups.

Last week, when a Syrian mortar strike claimed the lives of five Turkish citizens, Turkish-Syrian relations gained a new dimension. The reaction of the Turkish government was harsh. Parliament quickly passed a motion giving military clearance for action against Syria. Meanwhile, Syria has become the hottest topic in domestic politics. The implementation of the motion changed the character and dimension of the support given to rebel forces. The “cross-border motion” was passed so fast that not only political analysts, but even the government’s own members, had difficulties making sense of it.

For the last couple of months, the government was not as eager and agile as it previously was in its approach to the Syrian crisis. It somewhat expressed the fact that it did not receive enough support from its allies. The ideological identity of some armed opposition groups, the realization that al-Assad will not go down easily, and the high costs of a possible intervention all nurtured distrust among the allies. It was also clear that Turkish public opinion was opposed to fighting with Syria. Last but not least, the government was under the pressure of terrorism from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

As internal and external complications kept piling up, a mortar strike coming from a country suffering from a civil war with no front line was not surprising. The real surprise was that the shelling sparked “the intervention option.”

I believe these recent developments underline a well-known story: The story of how the priorities and perspectives of a politician and a general widely differ. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apparently wanted to manage public opinion by alleviating the psychological pressure caused by the mortar strike. This necessitated a quick response to Syria, especially in order to get rid of the feeling of humiliation raised after Syria brought down a Turkish jet last June.

We don’t know whether the hit order given by Erdoğan meets legal requirements. However, considering how fast Parliament authorized the cross-border motion, there seems to be some “technical” problems as implied by the Oct. 5 headline of the pro-government newspaper Sabah: “Erdogan gave a blank check to the army: ‘We take political responsibility. You can strike without asking us.’”

In recent years, the commanders of the Turkish Armed Forces have gained new experiences in their relationships with the media, courts and prisons, mainly thanks to this government. They learnt that “personal orders” with “no legal basis” should not be followed. They also probably learnt that the legal and political consequences of bombing a foreign country cannot be under any single person’s responsibility. Add to this the Uludere syndrome as well.

On the whole, although the “parliamentary authorization” has forced the government to deal with bigger and more complicated problems, the facts don’t matter. What matters is which story you can successfully pitch to the public. Nothing can ruin your day, especially when the opposition is ready to buy into the plans.