Tanks moving up to the Turkish-Syrian border, the deployment of hundreds of Turkish soldiers at posts that had been unmanned for years, and rules of engagement are part of Turkey’s effort to flex its muscles at Syria, in response to the downing of the Turkish plane last week. But, as first reported in Haaretz, Turkey still has no intention of declaring war on Syria, invading it, or even firing a single shot liable to set off a regional war. Turkey, a member of NATO, did ask the organization to deal with the downing of the plane, and while NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen came out with a harshly worded condemnation of the act, the statement lacked any teeth. In response to a question posed by an NTV Turkey journalist, Rasmussen stated that “we closely monitor the situation,” and in case anything similar happens, “we will consult and discuss what else can be done.” Two weeks ago, he made a point of reiterating NATO’s consistent position, according to which NATO will not attack Syria.
Russia, suspecting that Turkey is liable to act independently against Syria, hurried to express regret over the incident, complete with a condolence phone call from Russian President Valdimir Putin to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which Putin also asked Erdogan to maintain “level-headedness and restraint.” “The downing of the plane was unintentional and was not designed to provoke,” the Russians clarified. Russia, opposed to any act of aggression against Syria and still supportive of Assad’s regime, apparently decided to make another contribution to its standing in the international community, which views Russia as an accessory to the massacres being perpetrated by Assad, by announcing it would halt the deal to sell Syria the S-300 missile.
But Russia’s public declarations aren't convincing Turkey. Ankara's position is that the Syrians identified the plane and shot it down knowingly and intentionally. Moreover, the plane was on a training flight, not in attack or spy mode, and was downed 13 nautical miles away from the Syrian coastline. This version of events isn’t exactly congruent with the Turkish statement made the day after the F-4 was shot down – “It is possible that the plane entered Syrian sovereign territory and airspace,” said Turkish President Abdullah Gul at the time – and the doubts expressed that Syria had anything to do with the downing at all. Yesterday Turkey asked all the nations in the region to submit any information they have to Turkey to help further clarify what exactly happened.
At the same time, Turkey made it clear that from now on it will open fire freely at anything considered a Syrian threat to its territory or forces, thus defining Syria as an enemy nation, an unusual step even in the context of the relations between the two that started to go sour last summer. “Anyone who challenges Turkey’s might will encounter the strongest response possible,” said Erdogan in a convention of his political party. But such a response, should it come, will first have to wait for the international gathering taking place this Saturday in Geneva.
Russia, the United States, France, Great Britain and some Arab nations will participate in this gathering to discuss once more the appropriate international response to the Assad regime. A State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, was asked if this time Russia would agree to support the ouster of Assad. Her response was creative: “I think we would not be going to this Geneva meeting if we didn’t think that there … were improved chances for unity among the participants on the way forward.” This is a convoluted way of saying that discussions have been held with Russia and perhaps even with China and that the American hope is that this time the discussions will end with an announcement clearly calling for Assad to step down. No less interesting is Russia’s willingness to concede on inviting Iran to the Geneva gathering, after having insisted that any resolution of the crisis in Syria would have to include Iran as a partner. Nonetheless, this concession cost the West as it was forced to withhold an invitation to Saudi Arabia to participate. Still, with or without Iran and Saudi Arabia, the road to real action in toppling Assad’s regime remains long. The Geneva gathering is only one piece of the puzzle in constructing agreement over a Security Council resolution, which only if approved will pave the way to an agreement on using armed UN forces in Syria capable of using force to restore peace and going beyond mere observation and reporting.
Yesterday’s attack on Ikhbariya, Syria’s state-run TV station, aroused a great deal of interest in Syria itself. Opposition sources claim that the attack, which killed seven including three journalists, was carried out by members of the Republic Guard who had defected. If this is true, it may be that the defections from the Syrian army are spreading to the elite units, which so far have been thought to be the most loyal to the current regime.
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