‘Possible provocations increase risk of Turkish-Syrian conflict’

‘Possible provocations increase risk of Turkish-Syrian conflict’

ISTANBUL- Hürriyet Daily News
‘Possible provocations increase risk of Turkish-Syrian conflict’

Turkey is heading into an environment in which the tension is growing every day, increasing the risks of a conflict with Syria, says Atilla Sandıklı (R), the head of a think tank that focuses on Turkey’s security strategies. DAILY NEWS photos, Emrah GÜREL

The risk of a conflict between Ankara and Damascus is growing following Syria’s downing of a Turkish jet last week, the head of an Istanbul-based think tank has said, noting that the environment is conducive to provocations that could drag Turkey into the conflagration.

“The Syrian administration should refrain from steps that could lead to escalation, but when it loses its ability to make a healthy analysis and thinks that it is about to collapse, then it could try to pull Turkey into this inferno,” said Atilla Sandıklı, a former soldier and the head of the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BİLGESAM), noting that such a situation was open to provocation by both Syria and other regional countries that might try to force Turkey into the quagmire. One or two incidents might not result in conflagration, but “the tension could lead to an undesired war or other countries that want to force Turkey into a war could use this situation,” he recently told the Hürriyet Daily News.

How would you describe the current situation between Turkey and Syria?
We are heading into an environment in which the tension is growing everyday, increasing the risks of a conflict. If we are at the point of controlling it, we can call it a policy of controlled tension. We are trying to keep the crisis at a manageable level. We are endorsing the necessary measures against the risks Syria poses to Turkey without causing a war.

What does it mean when Ankara says Syria is an open and imminent threat to Turkey? Doesn’t that mean we are nearer to a war situation with Syria?
Syria has become a country that is not only unable to conduct a healthy [evaluation of what is going on] within its borders but is also a country that cannot make healthy evaluations and rational decisions about developments in the international arena. The latest incident is perceived as a security risk that Syria is posing against Turkey, and Turkey has decided to take the necessary measures so that it can face the risks Syria poses without being harmed.

So you believe Syria shot down the plane because it lost its ability to think rationally; you don’t think there was a calculated game plan behind it. Could it be that it was trying to send a message to the international community or get Russia more on its side?

Even if it was thinking with that sort of game plan, it still shows that it does not have a healthy analysis. States that don’t have rational thinking might give an [exaggerated] reaction and even try to hurt countries that harm it by pulling them down as they, too, go down. This incident shows that Syria has lost its ability to think healthily, and that’s why the risk is now much higher than one might think. This is because a step you take might meet a reaction much different than what you would expect from a normal country.

What, then, are we to expect next?

Syria had already previously closed its air space, which means it has endorsed its own rules of engagement. But Turkey also changed its rules of engagement against Syria. You can either have fire at will or fire with care. Fire at will means that when … land, sea and air forces meet a security risk, this [threat] is evaluated by the element that faces the risk and decides to fire. Fire with care means the authority to fire is not given to the lower element that first meets the threat; the authority to decide is given to a higher level. Then there is a healthier evaluation. When the danger is imminent, being able to fire at will is important for overcoming the threat without any harm. Fire with care is important in preventing unnecessary tension as the authority to fire is given to higher levels, which can make a healthier analysis.

As of now, the Turkish government has not shared with the public which rules of engagement it is using.
No, but it does not have to share these with the public.

Does the statement that any military element approaching Turkey will be considered a military target mean that those elements can be hit even beyond Turkish borders?
That statement also says Turkey will abide by international law. According to the optimistic scenario, international pressure and Turkey’s initiatives will deter Syria from firing against Turkey and Syria will avoid steps that would pose a security risk and annoy Turkey. The pessimistic scenario is the situation where there is no longer a healthy decision-making mechanism – something that could force Turkey into the circle of fire. This is an environment open to provocations. If Syria really wants to force Turkey into the circle of fire, it will try to make Turkey fire on itself. That does not mean that there will be war after just one or two incidents, but if the number of such incidents increases, the tension could lead to an undesired war, or other countries that want to force Turkey into a war could use this situation.

That’s why it would be very useful to establish a crisis center for crisis management to control every moment of the crisis at every stage. I found Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s] statement harsh on rhetoric but sober on strategy. It was not decided to [immediately] retaliate by hitting a plane or defense system. But while not doing that, as it might lead Syria to act foolishly, the rules of engagement have been changed in order to deter Syria – precisely to prevent any Syrian misjudgment.

Some argue that Turkey’s policy statement goes beyond retaliation.
I don’t agree because Turkey did not [immediately] retaliate, as that would have escalated the tension. If you retaliate immediately, you can say we are now even but the other side can then think it has the right to answer back and this can escalate the tension. [Turkey has endorsed] a policy of restraint. But of course one needs to prevent Syria from misreading Turkey’s policy based on common sense. This is an acceptable approach. However, it entails risks since it has now created an environment which can be abused to push Turkey and Syria toward war.

Looking at the reaction coming from Syria, which of the scenarios are more likely to occur?
Under a normal mentality, it is a strategic mistake for a country that has an internal war to agree to [enter] another war outside [of its borders]. This is plain stupid and foolish. The Syrian administration should refrain from steps that could lead to escalation. But when it loses its ability to make a healthy analysis and thinks that it is about to collapse, then it could try to pull Turkey into this inferno. Countries like Iran and Russia could encourage such a situation. We might be closer to the pessimist scenario. That’s why if Turkey’s rules of engagement are at the level of fire at will then the risk is higher. If it is at the level of fire with care, that leaves room for a better analysis and could prevent the crisis from escalating.

Are we talking about an unofficial buffer zone and a no-fly zone?
Syria would have to be much more careful. There would be a space which Syria would need to be more attentive but this is not a situation that can be defined as a secure corridor or a buffer zone.

I am sure that some in the Arab world might be thinking that Turkey might use this occasion to escalate the tension with Syria, possibly facilitating regime change.

We are not there but signals that Turkey could come to that stage could emerge if Syria increases its steps that might produce a greater security risk. What Turkey should do is avoid being pulled inside hot conflicts in the Middle East.


İzmir-born Atilla Sandıklı entered the Turkish Military Academy after graduating from high school in 1976 before continuing his education at the Army War College and the Armed Forces College. Later, he completed his doctorate at Istanbul University’s Institute of Atatürk’s Principles and Revolution History.

Sandıklı has also held a number of posts in the Turkish Armed Forces as an officer and commander, as well as consultancy positions at the National Security Council; he was also the head of the international relations department at the War Academies Commandership.

After a number of other positions in the military, Sandıklı formed the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BİLGESAM), which conducts scientific research on multilateral relations and Turkey’s security strategies.

Sandıklı, who has published 15 books, is still the head of BİLGESAM.