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Turkey will not go to war on Syria – yet – but the region is becoming ever more unstable

2012 June 27
by Paul Vallely

When the Syrians shot down a Turkish military jet at the weekend Turkey’s government responded in a very measured manner. But the temperature was raised yesterday when the Turkish deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc revealed that Syria had then gone on to fire on a search and rescue plane looking for the missing pilots. It was “a hostile act of the highest order,” he said. Turkey is now threatening a military response against any Syrian forces approaching the long border between the two countries. Ankara has now revised its military rules of engagement.

This is an alarming development. Since the start of the uprising against President Assad in Syria – in which 14,000 people have died – there have been serious concerns that the violence could move beyond that country’s borders to spark a broader regional conflagration. Relations between Turkey and Syria have long been strained with recurring disputes over the border, water, Damascus’s support for Kurdish rebels and most recently the influx of Syrian refugees seeking safe haven in Turkey.

But just as significantly Turkey is a member of Nato. Ankara has approached the alliance now under Article 4 of the Nato Treaty which allows any member state to demand a Nato meeting if it believes its “territorial integrity, political independence or security” is threatened.  Ankara has done that – only the second time in Nato’s history that a member state has invoked Article 4.  In response Nato has condemned Syria’s attack “in the strongest terms” and said the alliance’s 28 members will “stand together with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity”. The incident, it said, was another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard for international norms.

Referring the issue to Nato is a double-edged sword for Turkey. It summons the power of the alliance, but it also binds Ankara to take the advice of Nato members amongst whom there is still no appetite for military intervention in Syria. Nato works by consensus and all members must approve any action. Yet Turkey has pointedly refrained from invoking Article 5 of the Treaty by which an attack on one member is considered an attack on all NATO countries. Article 5 was last invoked, by Turkey, when Saddam Hussein threatened it after he had invaded Kuwait.

What this means is that, for all the tough talk of Turkish politicians, its government is limiting its response as yet to a diplomatic rather than a military one. Such caution is prudent. For the downing of the military jet has shown that the international community is here faced with a problem far tougher than that posed by Libya or even Iraq. Syria’s potent air defences are far more extensive than those of Libya, and even those required a full-scale US air campaign to destroy.

But if the prospect of Western military intervention in Syria remains remote, what this episode highlights is the escalating volatility the Syrian crisis is creating. Yesterday there were reports of fighting near Republican Guard positions in the suburbs of Damascus which are believed to house part of Syria’s formidable chemical weapons arsenal. Both Israel and the United States have said privately that they would be forced to act if these facilities became insecure. As the bloodshed grows, and the Assad regime becomes more desperate, the risk grows that some unpredictable event will ignite new dimensions to the conflict.

Official Nato military intervention is unthinkable without the support of either the Arab League or the United Nations Security Council, where Russia continues to exercise a veto.  But incidents like the shooting down of the Turkish reconnaissance plane illustrate the dangers of the untoward in this highly labile region. The nightmare prospect of regional conflict involving Syria, Turkey, Israel and Iran appears ever more credible.

Russia is the key to unlocking the impasse. The West should concentrate now on providing Moscow with the assurances that its geopolitical interests will be preserved in Syria so long as it assists in a regime change which seems the back of the blood-stained President Assad.

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