Turkey: Stakes Are High For Ankara as Confrontation with Syria Continues
The tension along the Turkey-Syria border continues to grow. Turkish forces today again sent artillery fire into Syria, after a Syrian shell landed just inside the Turkish border. This comes two days after Turkey fired shells into Syria after a Syrian mortar landed in the Turkish border town of Akcakale, killing five people, among them three children.
The Turkish response has been swift. Along with responding with its own artillery, Ankara has beefed up its forces along the Syrian border, while the parliament approved yesterday a motion that allows the government to send troops into "foreign countries" if deemed necessary. The motion is valid for one year.
Along with the escalation in military activity along the border, there has also been an escalation in rhetoric. Although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday that Turkey is "not interested" in starting a war, a speech he gave today was more strident. Reports Reuters:
Striking a belligerent tone in a speech to a crowd in Istanbul, Erdogan said: "We are not interested in war, but we're not far from it either. This nation has come to where it is today having gone through intercontinental wars.
"Those who attempt to test Turkey's deterrence, its decisiveness, its capacity, I say here they are making a fatal mistake," he said.
"When they say 'if you want peace prepare for war' it means that when the time comes, war becomes the key to peace".
But a further escalation of the crisis with Damascus could make things extremely problematic for Ankara, both domestically and regionally.
On the domestic front, while there is clear public anger over the death of the five people in Akcakale, that doesn't necessarily translate into support for an expanded Turkish military operation against Syria. If anything, some recent polls have suggested that a majority of Turks are not happy with the government's policy of being so deeply involved with the effort to oust the Assad regime.
Regionally, further confrontation with Syria would likely put further pressure on the already tense relations Turkey now has with Iran and Iraq, both of which have been supporting the Assad regime. Any further escalation of hostilities with the Syrian regime could also put Turkey on a collision course with Russia, another country which has been supportive of Assad, but which also provides Turkey with a bulk of its natural gas supplies. (In fact, during a congress last weekend of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan strongly criticized Moscow and Tehran for their continuing support of Assad.)
Looking beyond the region, any more serious fight between Turkey and Syria could also prove problematic to Ankara's relations with Washington. While Turkey may be interested in using Wednesday's fatal mortar incident as an opportunity to create a kind of de facto buffer zone inside Syria by forcing Syrian forces away from the border (as this piece from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy suggests), it's not clear if the administration -- which has stated it stands "shoulder to shoulder" with Turkey -- wants yet another conflict in the Middle East in the middle of election season.
Ankara may be right in striking back against Damascus, but setting the stage for further escalation could prove tricky, forcing Turkey to navigate some very complex and dangerous political and diplomatic waters.