Syrian situation remains volatile for Turkey

Syrian situation remains volatile for Turkey

One thing that came out of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s angry remarks on Tuesday is that a Turkish military response to the downing of one of its jet by Syria should not be expected soon, if at all.

Erdoğan said Turkey would select the time and place for retaliation, meaning in effect that he is playing for time. Ankara is clearly not in a risk taking mood. Given how matters unfold for Bashar al-Assad, there may not even be a need for retaliation in order to satisfy national honor.

Erdoğan did nevertheless up the ante when he said the military rules of engagement against Syria had changed. In other words any new threat or violation will be responded to immediately. This throws the ball into Damascus’s court, and al-Assad’s commanders will have to factor in this now when they plan their movements near the Turkish land border, airspace or territorial waters.

A positive result from these developments is that Turkey has secured strong support from NATO for which Erdoğan expressed satisfaction. This is good as it comes in the wake of a debate which still surfaces at times as to which world Turkey is attached to strategically.

Even if it is not valid across the board for all Islamists, it seems the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – which has Islamist grassroots – has overcome the antipathy with which it viewed NATO in the past. It was not so long ago, after all, that Erdoğan was castigating NATO for considering engagement in Libya.

Ankara accepts that its fighter jet – which it says was testing a new radar system in an unarmed mission that had nothing to do with Syria – strayed by mistake into Syrian airspace momentarily. However, it insists that it was downed in international airspace without any prior warning.

Given the situation in Syria none of Turkey’s allies seem prepared to contradict this account. In addition to this, none of Turkey’s allies appear displeased with the notice Ankara issued to Damascus. Whether this means that there is a secret desire in Western capitals “to get the Turks to do the dirty work in Syria,” as many critics of Erdoğan in Turkey are claiming is an open question.

If looking objectively, what one sees on the part of Turkey’s allies is a reluctance to get involved militarily in Syria, and one assumes this applies to any confrontation between an ally and Syria that could drag the alliance in.

There is clear recognition all around, in Ankara included, that any military engagement in Syria will be messy both regionally and globally, and not only because of the military and political support Damascus has from Iran and Russia.

There is also the risk of a spillover of sectarian conflict into other countries in the Middle East and the Gulf region, given that the situation in Syria has taken on the appearance of a civil war between the Shiites and Sunnis.

Al-Assad is also aware of this and has been manipulating it cunningly in a way that has enabled him to resist the insurgency in his country much longer than many thought he would. But Turkey’s notice to Damascus still increases the pressure on him, and this in itself is seen as a good thing by Western diplomats.

Russia and Iran however still hold the key for a settlement of the situation in Syria. Both countries remain firm backers of the Syrian regime and there have been statements and media commentary in both countries which question Turkey’s claim about the downed jet.

NATO’s strong backing of Turkey, on the other hand, has merely fueled the flames of speculation in Moscow and Tehran that the Turkish jet was in fact on a NATO reconnaissance mission.

While no military response to Syria over this downing is imminent it seems the situation will remain volatile. In the meantime a wrong step by Syria could still ignite a military confrontation. This is why Turkey prefers to move cautiously despite Erdoğan’s angry remarks aimed at Syria.