Turkish President Abdullah Gul told the Financial Times yesterday (12 November) that Turkey’s decision to consider asking NATO for a Patriot missile battery was spurred by a fear that Bashar al Assad could use his chemical weapons. According to the interview:
“It is known that Syria has chemical weapons and they have old Soviet delivery systems, so if there is in some eventuality some sort of madness in this respect and some action is taken, contingency planning has to be put in place and this is something Nato is doing,” Gul said.
Rather than being part of a concerted effort to establish a “zone” on the Turkish-Syrian border, the request – if it is made – is to defend Turkish territory from missile attack. Given the PAC-3’s prohibitive cost – combined with their relatively small numbers – this is the most logical role for the system.
The rush to assume that Patriot would be used for a “zone – which was fueled by a leak from the intervention supporting Turkish foreign ministry – is the latest in a series of efforts to try and drum up support for a multi-lateral intervention in Syria. For example, Turkey’s response to the Syrian downing of a Turkish F-4 off the Syrian coast in June prompted speculation that Ankara was taking matters into its own hands and establishing a “de-facto” buffer zone. It was assumed that the changing of Turkey’s rules of engagement and the decision to reinforce the border military deployments would deter Assad from conducting military operations on or near the border. Those predictions, which were driven by speculation from the media, proved to be false. After an errant shell struck a Turkish border town – killing 5 civilians – Prime Minister Erdogan’s decision to get approval from Parliament to conduct cross border raids again raised the idea that Turkey was gearing up for an intervention in Syria. These predictions, however, were incorrect. (I am sensing a pattern here)
The constant stream of “zone” predictions, combined with well placed leaks feinting a Turkish willingness to intervene, appears to be part of Ankara’s determination to deter Assad from doing something. What exactly Turkey is deterring is still undefined (deterrence theorists close your eyes and ears). Despite the
leaked well covered pictures and video of Turkish armor rumbling to the border, and the breathy reports about sporadic F-16 intercepts, Ankara’s numerous threats have failed to deter Assad. Yesterday, Syrian forces conducted devastating airstrikes just meters from the border. According to Today’s Zaman, Syrian aircraft briefly passed into Turkish territory while striking their targets. Turkish F-16s were dispatched and, according to TZ, given the order to shoot if the planes strayed too far over the border.
In the end, Turkey remained a bystander to the senseless slaughter. As a result, it appears that us Turkey watchers now have a vague idea of what the previously ill-defined new rules of engagement are. They appear to be that Turkey will respond with mortar fire to Syrian shells and its armed forces are authorized to shoot down Syrian aircraft if they drift into Turkish airspace. Critically, they do not, as of yet, include shooting down Syrian aircraft in Syria. If these rules aren’t changed, then there will be no “zone”.
Lastly, the predictions speak to a larger failing in Turkish foreign policy. Namely, that Ankara’s disgust at the international community’s refusal to intervene in Syria has prompted a series of rash statements designed to try and prompt multi-lateral action. Turkey’s statements about intervention, more often than not, discount some of the real concerns about the state of the opposition and the difficulty in setting up either a buffer of no-fly-zone. Ankara, if it is serious about intervening in Syria (and I think it is), would be wise to accept the assessments about the difficulties in setting up a “zone” and stop pushing half measures through coordinated leaks.
Instead, Turkey should be making the case that the cost of not intervening far outweighs the cost of intervention. Ankara should admit to the difficulty of military action, but also point out that a robust international coalition could overcome these difficulties and, eventually, contribute to the end of a bloody civil war. However, its emotional statements have limited its options. Ankara has been so far out in front of its allies on the issue of intervention, that Turkey has few, if any, policy options moving forward.
Turkey would be wise to drop the emotional rhetoric and focus on areas where its interest overlap with its closest allies. Turkey’s policy would, in my opinion, be better served if Ankara focused its attention on the threats posed by inaction. These include the rise of Salafi backed foreign fighters and the moral failing of ignoring an ethnically fueled civil war. For now, Turkish leaders appear to be intent on finding someone to blame for inaction, rather than proposing a different policy solution. Moving forward, Ankara would be wise to borrow rhetoric from the intervention supporters in the West when making its arguments. This would give the appearance that Ankara is pursuing a policy of shared interests, rather than simply reacting to the daily atrocities. Targeting this key segment of the policy community is critical, considering that there are credible reports that some in the U.S. and elsewhere are looking into ways to deepen Western involvement in the crisis.
Even then, the war weary West may still not be coming to bail Turkey out of this jam. However, Turkey’s insistence on pursuing an emotional policy makes its easy for anti-interventionists to easily cast aside Turkish policy options as not credible. Therefore, Ankara needs to change its tone and reassess its vital interests. These include
1) Stemming the flow of refugees
2) Ensuring the territorial integrity of the post-Assad Syrian state
3) Preventing Kurdish groups with links to the PKK from establishing their own state or autonomous zone.
In order to do this, Ankara needs to re-evaluate its emotional approach to the crisis. Thus, far Turkey’s intervention or bust strategy is hindering its options and its not helping it maximize its own foreign policy goals. Something needs to change.