The Syrian crisis: Why the international community cannot afford to ‘watch’

The Syrian crisis: Why the international community cannot afford to ‘watch’

At the beginning of Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s, the European Community dispatched unarmed observers to monitor the situation in Croatia. Fred Ikle had a memorable quote from that time: “Binoculars are not a good deterrent.”

The situation on the Turkish-Syrian border today is much different. But the responses of the international community are just as distanced and reserved as in the early days of the Yugoslav conflict.

After Libya, which incurred zero casualties on the outside interveners, international intervention for humanitarian reasons has become problematic. Both China and Russia have made it clear after the Libyan operation that they will not support a military intervention that leads to regime change.

Yet, last year, when the Syrian conflict was already raging, policy makers in the West were still feeling the discomfort of the 1990s imperative for “doing something” for “humanitarian reasons” but not being able to. It was even suggested that Turkey in concert with the Arab League should take over some “regional responsibility” and act in Syria. My response at the time was that Turkey will certainly not act unilaterally unless its national security is directly threatened. It will not intervene in any regional conflict without UN authorization and NATO backing for humanitarian purposes. This holds true. Turkey did not fire any shots into neighboring Syria until recently, when a Syrian mortar flew across the border into a Turkish town, killing five civilians. Even then, Turkey has been very patient and measured in its responses, despite earlier incidents.

While the Turkish prime minister did refer to NATO’s Article 5 – which means an attack on one of the allies is deemed an attack on all – when Syrian fire landed in Turkey in April, any mention of Article 5 was avoided when Syrian forces shot down a Turkish jet, killing two pilots in June. Article 5 is pretty clear in including an attack on allied aircraft in the Mediterranean. Technically, NATO could have gone to war over this. But Article 5 is not necessarily invoked every time a cross-border incident happens, especially when the circumstances are unclear and there are doubts if the incident was an accident or a deliberate attack. Since the Syrian government has apologized and claimed both incidents – the downing of the jet and the mortar that landed across the border were accidents – then Article 5 becomes problematic, also because of the magnitude of extending the conflict to NATO countries.

Turkey’s initial reaction to the Syrian mortar last week included an immediate retaliation of Turkish fire on Syrian positions and an authorization from Parliament for cross-border military incursions into Syria. The latter is intended to be used if necessary to protect the Turkish border and to act as deterrent to signal the gravity of the situation. It was far from an act of war. Afterwards, the Syrian regime apologized for what they called an accident and promised it would not happen again. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s statement that this explanation from the Syrian side should be noted carefully hinted at containing the problem and heading off any moves toward escalation. This was followed by a Syrian order to withdraw military activity 10 kilometers away from the Turkish border to avoid any further “accidents.” At that point it seemed that the situation might stabilize. But as Syrian mortar shells continued to land in Turkey, and Turkey returned with the further shelling of Syrian targets across the border, the situation is more likely to escalate beyond the control of any of the main actors.

It is obvious now that Syrian efforts to keep the conflict away from the Turkish border are beyond their capabilities. This is a job for the international community. This does not require full-scale military intervention as in the Libyan case nor is it a moral crusade of humanitarian intervention leading to regime change. It means an internationally monitored exclusion zone to protect the Turkish border from Syrian fire. This is not something Turkey should or can do on its own. Nor should it be left to regional players like the Arab League who neither have the concerted political will nor the capability to carry this out. It’s time for the international community led by the U.S., its allies and Russia to act together to avoid a further escalation of the crisis. For the U.S. and NATO it should be clear: a further escalation could indeed bring the matter to an Article 5 situation, making it unavoidable for all concerned. For Russia, it would hardly like to see Syria in an open war with a NATO ally who is one of its major trading partners, particularly in energy. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that whether or not the Syrian conflict will escalate and spread to neighboring countries like Turkey “remains to be seen.” Really, Mr. Panetta, don’t you think that something needs to be done to secure the Turkish-Syrian border before that happens?

Gülnur Aybet is a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Kent, England.