The violence in Syria has already killed around 31,000 people. Until now, the international community has pretty much chosen to sit on its hands. This may have been understandable in the early days of the conflict, but some 19 months down the line, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify.
The urgency of the situation has become greater not simply because of the deteriorating situation inside the country, but because violence is increasingly spreading beyond Syria’s borders into Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. For Turkey, the situation continues to go from bad to worse. As I have written in previous columns, this is partially a consequence of the Turkish government’s ill-defined strategy towards Syria, which has increasingly backfired on them as the conflict has descended into sectarian warfare.
Last Thursday, Turkey’s leadership snapped, announcing that Parliament
had authorized cross-border military operations into “foreign countries” (obviously meant to cover Iraq too) following Syrian shelling of Turkish areas, including the appalling incident in the town of Akçakale, which led to the death of five civilians including three children. The decision of Parliament has sent a strong warning to Syria’s leadership that further violations of Turkey’s territorial integrity and airspace will not be tolerated. The decision has given Turkey’s armed forces a mandate to do whatever is necessary to protect Turkey’s borders and territory. So far, Turkey has responded rather proportionally, not crossing over into Syrian territory. Rather they have only carried out artillery strikes with no airstrikes taking place. At the same time, NATO has also responded with a tough statement, declaring “the Syrian regime’s recent aggressive acts on NATO’s southeastern border are a flagrant breach of international law and a clear and present danger to security.”
Bashar al-Assad’s claim that the incident in Akçakale was an accident was backed up by U.N. Security Council member Russia, which blocked the adoption of a draft U.N. statement condemning the deadly attack. The Russians could apparently not accept the wording “such violations of international law constitute a serious threat to international peace and security,” rather proposing a weaker text that calls for “restraint” on the border without referring to breaches of international law. Moscow’s approach continues to exasperate the West, yet it represents a continuation of Russia’s policy of backing Assad right to the end. No doubt Ankara has calculated that the apology that came from Damascus, via the United Nations, stating that such an incident would not happen again, is a consequence of its tough response, combined with NATO’s support, and that Damascus would not dare to do it again. However, while Damascus does not want a military confrontation with Turkey, with the perilous situation on the ground, anything could happen. So what would happen if there were another incident? I don’t doubt that Turkish forces would cross over the border in order to retaliate -- something which would also give them an opportunity to attack the Kurdish bases there.
The Syria crisis has reopened the region’s Kurdish issue, reigniting hope among the Kurds who are divided between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran that something positive, such as their own state or at least greater autonomy, could come out of all the turmoil. Therefore, since the Syrian crisis developed into a civil war, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has launched its most intense campaign against Turkish military forces since the early 1990s. Turkey believes Syria’s Kurds are assisting the PKK, supported by Assad.
Furthermore, if there is another incident it is probable that the issue of creating a “safe zone” or buffer zone at the border could come back to the table, although last time around it received no support. Again, Russia is dead-set against something along these lines, as Moscow views it as a violation of Syria’s territorial integrity. Indeed, for Turkey to gain more support something would have to change in the thinking of the international community, and in particular the U.S.
So the situation is getting increasingly uncomfortable for U.S. President Barack Obama, who is already under pressure from his opponent, Mitt Romney, for his lack of action on Syria. Obama does not want to find himself in a situation -- particularly heading towards election day -- where he is being accused of not stepping up to support a NATO ally in trouble. The fact that Turkey has been a strong Muslim ally in the Middle East makes the situation even more delicate. Obama has been very cautious in his approach towards Syria for a number of different reasons: the forthcoming November presidential elections, and a total lack of appetite among U.S. citizens for another military adventure in the Middle East. To a certain degree this approach has annoyed Turkey’s leadership, as it gives the impression that the U.S. has been quite indifferent to its Syria problem, something that was underlined on Sept. 5 when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan scolded Obama for his lack of policy and initiatives on Syria during an interview with CNN. The U.S. issued a strong statement condemning Syria, but as yet neither Washington nor other international actors have actually given any idea of what can be done if there is a further deterioration of the situation. Therefore I guess there is a good chance that Turkey would be left to handle the situation by itself.
(This article was published in Today's Zaman on Oct. 7, 2012.)