“Patriots always talk of dying for their country but never of killing for their country.” (Bertrand Russell )
Any Arab should be proud when an Arab regime defends its borders in the way Syria did when a Turkish warplane went astray across the Syrian air space.
The circumstances under which the Turkish aircraft incident took place are mysterious till this very moment and I don’t think that the hollow threats Ankara has been hurling at the Syrian regime since it started its violent repression of protests 15 months ago will serve to make the picture any clearer.
I remember well when in the late 1990s Ankara issued a strong warning to late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad for his support of the Kurdish Workers Party both inside Syria and in east Lebanon, occupied by Syria at the time. The Syrian regime gave in immediately and made Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan leave all Syrian and the Lebanese territories it controlled.
I also remember the Syrian regime’s “peaceful” response to the Israeli air raid on the Ain al-Saheb camp near Damascus and the al-Kibar facility near Deir al-Zour not to mention Israeli air shows over the presidential headquarters in Latakia, the last location being the exact same one Syria decided is to be prohibited for a Turkish aircraft that had to be gunned down instead of just warned for coming near it even though at that moment it was already hovering over international waters. It is noteworthy that the 13 kilometers the aircraft might have crossed remain a lot shorter than the distance between the borders of the occupied Golan Heights and al-Kibar which is closer to the borders with Iraq.
In all cases, this is more than just a misunderstanding and this is something both Ankara and Damascus understand very well. Realistically speaking, what we’re up against now is a war with dangerous international, regional, and sectarian implications. This could have been avoided had Bashar al-Assad benefited from his father’s shrewdness 15 months ago and his ability to nip nascent revolutions in the bud. Instead he used the surgical abilities he has been used to as a doctor and he did not mind to kill the patient in order for the operation to prove a success.
Assad was not satisfied with this kind of amputation that necessitated creating streams of blood, destroying entire towns and villages, and rendering countless people homeless, but insisted on living in this state of denial and moving forward while counting on domestic and international factors that managed to help his regime survive till the moment.
The domestic factor is the constant state of fear in which citizens live. This resulted in a general lack of trust among people and the inability to unite against the regime. The outcome of this culture of fear is not only seen in sectarian tension, but also in the fact that Syrians cannot even trust members of their families because any of them could turn out to be working for the regime. This explains the obstacles facing the formation on one unified opposition front.
The international factor can be summarized in two points: One, apprehensions about the rise of political Islam. Two, ongoing attempts to tip the balance of power that has since the end of the Cold War been in favor of the United States. Apparently, there are various forms of political Islam. There is the Erdogan-Erbakan model in Turkey, the Khomeini-Khamenei model in Iran, the Salafi Jihadist model, the Tunisian-Moroccan model, which can also be grouped with the Egyptian one as of yesterday when Mohamed Mursi was declared winner of the presidential elections. The last model is one that offers a loose political framework with a vague range of powers.
Till this moment, Bashar al-Assad is counting on the fact that neither the West nor Israel would want to topple a regime as harmless as the Syrian one, one that is actually cooperative on the strategic level even if every now and then it pretends to be a trouble maker. The alternative for foreign powers would be political Islam with all the influence it is expected to wield. Assad made sure from the very beginning to hold fundamentalist groups accountable for the violence even though the opposition encompasses diverse echelons of the Syrian society like George Sabra, Aref Dalila, and Jabr al-Shoufi. Then he used his confrontational strategy outside the borders of Syria in a manner that portends grave regional consequences. He also involved minorities in Syria in battles they did not choose to take part under the pretext that their interests are under threat.
Then he accused Turkey of arming the Syrian opposition and intensified his bloody repression in predominantly Turkmen areas like al-Houla where the most brutal of the regime’s massacres were committed as well as the town of Zara in Homs, al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood near Damascus, and the city of Azaz in Aleppo. Reports also said that Syrian forces have been targeting Turkish firefighting planes across the borders as well as civilians who try to flee to Turkey. All this was before downing the Phantom F-4 over the sea.
How can Damascus play this cat and mouse game with Turkey now while it was previously very careful not to upset it? What has changed in the balance of power between the two countries since the 1998 Ocalan crisis? Is Syria more embolden with the Russian-Chinese veto and the deterrence it might constitute for Ankara? Or is Syria counting on the support of Israel which is becoming increasingly alarmed by the rise of political Islam in the region?
Now, we have to go back to Ankara’s threats that it will not remain hand-tied while it watches the Syrian regime butchering its people. But none of those threats materialized and that is why the Syrian regime might have reached the conclusion that Ankara is incapable of taking any action because it simply wants to take no risks with Russia and China as well as Iran. That is why the regime kept killing the Syrian people then had the nerve to attack the Turkish plane.
The ball is now in Ankara’s court, but its options are dwindling by the minute!
First published in Asharq al-Awsat on June 25 and translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid