There is no doubt that Turkey, the second largest military force in the NATO military alliance after the US, has the capability and the capacity to destroy the Syrian army, or what is left of it anyway after so many defections, poor equipment and low morale. Taking out Syrian defensive and offensive capabilities will not be that hard, especially considering the loyalty and devotion the Turkish government has gained with the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most well-organized grassroots organization in a Sunni majority population that has been battered by the minority Alawite regime for decades.
That being said, I do not think we should be rushing into a war with Syria over the incident in which the Turkish side claimed Syria had shot down an RF-4 unarmed training jet over international airspace without any warning whatsoever. Even a punitive retaliation scenario by Turkish fighter planes striking at the offending radar base that launched the missile against our plane may escalate already tense relations in the region to a completely new level. While we are scrambling our fighter jets to respond to what some consider a great humiliation, Turkey may be venturing into dangerous and unchartered territory here. For all we know, the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus may not have even been aware of this provocation until after it had already happened and was forced to accept the responsibility in the incident as a fait accompli.
At this point, whether the plane was flying in international airspace during the attack (the Turkish claim) or whether it was in Syrian airspace when it was accidently brought down by a Syrian missile (the Syrian claim), I think is not so important or crucial. The existing security agreements Turkey has with Syria may give Turkish jets the right to fly through Syrian airspace for reconnaissance flights or even to strike at targets that were deemed to be posing a threat to Turkish national security, like the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) bases located in the north. If needed, there is perfect legal basis to make the case for such over flights and land incursions. I’m sure there are legal counterarguments to that assertion. In the end, it will be down to a difference of opinion and will not alter the core fact that Turkey has a serious threat emanating from the south, and it will face brinkmanship scenarios as long as the Syrian crisis is not neutralized. We are bound to see similar incidents in the future. We have on more than one occasion in the past witnessed a shooting into the Turkish side of the border by Syrian forces.
I fear there is a bigger game out here and the embattled regime in Syria is just a small fish to draw Turkey into a Middle Eastern quagmire. So far, the government in Ankara seems to have taken a prudent approach over the downing of the jet by internationalizing the incident so that the risk to its national security is minimized. With the events possibly getting out of hand, it is certainly wise to gain more partners to diffuse the tension and deal with the crisis appropriately. If played right, this incident may even turn into a chance for Turkey to further shore up the international coalition against Syria and isolate its die-hard supporters — Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
In the meantime, we all know there are a lot of people both inside and outside of Turkey who are itching for a war with Syria for all the wrong reasons. It is discomforting, for example, to see that neocons in Washington, who made a mess in Iraq and Afghanistan, are now warmongering for Syria with the idea of arming the opposition and establishing a no-fly zone in Syria. A US diplomat based in Ankara told me recently that it was highly unusual to see visits by senators to Turkey during the presidential election year back in Washington. He was referring to the visit of US Republican Senator John McCain and Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, who were on a surprise trip to the Turkish-Syrian border to meet with leaders of the Free Syria Army.
Both McCain and Lieberman, long accused of being mouthpieces for neocons, visited the Yayladağı refugee camp on April 10 to give support to the Syrian opposition and used the occasion to call on the international community to arm the opposition fighters and set up and defend zones within Syria where they could receive military training. Interestingly enough, the senators’ visit coincided with a visit to the same refugee center on the same day by UN and Arab League joint special envoy Kofi Annan. We also need to underline that there are other countries in the Middle East and beyond that are also pushing Turkey to the brink of war with Syria for different reasons.
From the domestic perspective, there is also a campaign from some circles to push Turkey into the Syrian debacle. That is a dangerous game as well. In case we have forgotten, it was only nine years ago that a group of senior generals in the Turkish army drafted a military coup plan called Sledgehammer to oust the popular civilian government in Turkey. According to the court indictment, the coup plotters hideously planned to force a Greek fighter jet to shoot down a Turkish fighter plane over the Aegean during a dogfight and, if that were to fail, to instruct a Turkish pilot to take down a Turkish jet in order to shift the blame to the Greek side. The aim was to bring Turkey to the brink of war with Greece so that the new Turkish government would be made to look weak and embarrassed in the eyes of the public, creating the perfect environment for a military takeover.
The Sledgehammer trial, which started in 2010, is still going on at the İstanbul High Criminal Court. Does Turkey have enough trust in the generals in the army now that they will not make a stupid move on the Syrian front just to do what they failed to do in the Greek scenario? Has the military fully surrendered to the idea of democratic control of the armed forces, necessary for an EU candidate country? Looking at how hard the representatives of the chief of General Staff have been lobbying the government on various bills and drafts in the Turkish Parliament to escape from civilian control, as we saw in the Ombudsman Law two weeks ago, one has to say the government should have genuine doubts in that regard.
Let’s not forget, Turkey has not yet completely consolidated its democracy within and has a lot of domestic problems to sort out before confronting the challenges of a hard military power abroad. It needs to have stability so that its economy can continue to grow. It needs to educate and train its young population and to not waste their lives in Middle Eastern swamps. It needs to learn to use its soft power much more effectively than resorting to tough military action immediately with the belligerent tone embedded in its leaders’ remarks. Once you commit the country to the path of military action, it will not be easy to turn the clock back. The most important challenge will be how to stabilize Syria after the invasion.
Unfortunately, the worrisome news I hear in Ankara circles is that the leaders of the Turkish government have been lobbying the Obama administration to not defer military action into Syria until after the November elections, lest an unexpected development in Syria put the incumbent president in an embarrassing position against his Republican challenger at the peak of the presidential election campaign. The Obama administration is reportedly close to being convinced on that issue, if it was not already.
If we take the word of McCain, who made a speech at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) on June 18, Turkey is willing to do much more in Syria provided that there is clear US backing. Citing a neocon newspaper report, McCain said, “As one regional official told The Wall Street Journal last weekend, the Turks in particular are looking for, quote, ‘the ironclad backing of the US and others’.”
He also said that there would be no American boots on the ground in Syria. That means we, Turks, will have to spill our precious blood to get what McCain and others want in the States. Last week we lost only a trainer jet with two of our young pilots. But tomorrow when we have a real conflict with Syria and by proxy with Iran and Hezbollah, we will be potentially wasting thousands of young lives, the real treasure of this country. Turkey may have been dealt a blow to its prestige as Assad still hangs onto power after 15 months of uprising, leaving Turks with a feeling of defeat and humiliation. I think we can live with that if that means saving the lives of Turkish soldiers.
It is puzzling to see how the views of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government officials align with the neocons on the Syrian issue. We have been accustomed to seeing them at each other’s throats in the past.