Turkey’s muscle flexing vis-a-vis Syria provides the newest fuse for the perennially unstable Middle East. While the Syrians rushed to offer a rare apology to Ankara over an errant mortar round that killed five Turkish civilians near the common border, the Turks quickly retaliated with an artillery barrage against Syrian military targets deep into its neighbor’s territory.
Now the Turkish parliament has authorized the administration of PM Erdogan to launch cross-border military action if need arises. Erdogan is treating this license as both a threat against the beleaguered Syrian leader Bashar Assad and further tangible proof that he, and not the generals, is calling the domestic and foreign shots.
The Syrian case carries all the usual convoluted and explosive elements of a Middle East sectarian conflict. Assad, an Alawite, is confronted by Sunni rebels who maintain friendly contacts with the simmering Sunni rebellion in Iraq. At the same time, the powerful Hizb’allah terror organization that dominates Lebanon’s domestic socio-political balance has chosen the Assad side and is reported sending fighters and supplies to help Damascus.
Aside from above locus, Israel and Jordan are having their own security concerns because of the Syrian conflagration and would loath to see a foreign intervention in Syria that does not agree with their strategic interests.
Meantime, Erdogan (a Sunni) sees the Syrian conflict as a unique opportunity to increase Turkey’s influence in the region and raise Turkey to a command position capable of realizing strategic goals that were simply unattainable in the past.
The Turkish PM feels particularly emboldened these days as his continuing conflict with the army establishment has tilted in his favor and more generals have landed in jail.
But, at the same time, he needs to tread carefully as the Assad government has withdrawn its forces from most of the Turkish-Syrian border, thus allowing the Syrian-based Kurds, who continue their perennial bloody confrontation with Turkey, a literal free hand in meeting a possible Turkish incursion with considerable force.
Furthermore, the Turks need to take into serious account Iran’s full support for the tottering Assad. Iranian “advisers” are reported directing many of the Syrian regime’s military actions and supplying the Syrian military forces with arms and other material.
The Iranian presence is a potential bombshell that would almost certainly go off in case of a Turkish military action — something that would immediately mobilize Israel, already tense about the Syrian situation and Iran’s role in it, not to mention Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Responding to sporadic errant Syrian shelling in the Golan Heights, Israel staged a surprise mobilization exercise last month that brought thousands of troops to the Golan Heights to maneuver and use live fire during the drill.
Turkey’s war dance is also raising concerns in NATO capitals. Theoretically, Turkey, in case of another border incident, may invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty that stipulates that any NATO member coming under attack has the liberty to call upon all other members for help. (This is the same infamous Article 5 that NATO has refused to recognize as having application in the case of Turkey threatening war in the Aegean against Greece).
Erdogan and his deceivingly amiable foreign minister Davutoglou have pursued a proactive policy of expanding Turkey’s influence in regional affairs, something that is now jeopardized both by the so-called Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. Assad hasn’t collapsed as quickly as the other Arab dictators and that has thrown a spanner into the innards of Turkish plans.
For all the disappointment this development has brought to the Erdogan-Davoutoglou duo both these Turkish leaders realize that choosing the intervention card can trigger a wider war with incalculable impact on Syria and Turkey, not to mention the rest of the region.
Where is Greece standing in all of this? Unfortunately, Athens, caught in the maelstrom of its own socio-economic catastrophe, has simply no diplomatic or any other reach and has been reduced to a mere spectator of Turkey’s Syrian sabre rattling and bold maneuvering.
If experience is any yardstick, the Greek leaders will resort to the usual grandiloquent press releases calling for peace, observance of international law, etc, and will keep their fingers crossed in the hope that Turkey fumbles in this latest strategic play — because any Turkish “victory” in Syria could almost automatically increase Turkish pressure on Greek sovereignty in the Aegean.
(RIEAS Academic Advisor)