Turkish Attack on Syria May Play Into Assad's Hands

After the downing of a Turkish warplane in June, Turkey could not ignore mortar fire from Syria. However, an attack could be counterproductive, and Turkey won't go ahead without international support.

Turkey and Syria share a lengthy list of grievances – thorny issues that a few mortars fired by Turkish forces at Syria will not resolve, nor were they meant to resolve them.

Similarly, the Turkish parliament’s vote on Thursday giving the government broad powers to initiate military operations outside Turkish borders if necessary is for now merely a declaration of intent and not a declaration of war. After all, when the Turkish government decides to attack the Kurds in Iraqi territory, it doesn’t seek parliamentary approval each and every time.

Under other circumstances, it’s possible that the firing of mortars from Syrian territory into Turkey, even at a cost of five Turkish lives, would not have elicited a violent response from Ankara. But after the downing of a Turkish warplane in June, the circumstances of which are still being investigated, Turkey could not ignore the mortar fire and make do with another Syrian apology or the Syrian information minister’s promise of a thorough investigation.

The Turkish-Syrian border is hot and volatile. Near the crossing points on the Turkish side are deployed tank and artillery units, surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile batteries and large ground forces. If Turkey should decide to attack, it has the world’s sixth-largest army at its disposal.

It’s a well-equipped army, with more than 2,200 planes and helicopters that could easily deal with the divided Syrian army whose equipment is outdated and whose fighting ability has been revealed in all its weakness during its campaign against the rebels.

But a Turkish invasion and conquest of Syrian territories, even under the pretense of establishing “security zones,” is liable to play into the hands of beleaguered Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well into the hands of Russia, which till now has failed to even condemn the Syrian fire into Turkish territory.

Turkey has clarified that it does not reject intervening militarily on Syrian territory, but only under an international umbrella and with international approval, which members of the United Nations Security Council can’t get because of China’s and Russia’s veto power. This is also why official Turkish spokesmen are speaking cautiously. For example, Ibrahim Kalin, a close adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said explicitly that Turkey has no interest in a war with Syria.

Still, Turkey, with its increasingly sharp anti-Syrian rhetoric, the shelter it has granted tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and the logistical base it is providing Syria’s rebel forces, has become the primary supporter of the rebellion, and it no longer wants to take the rap on the West’s behalf.

In recent months, Turkey has been conducting a bloody campaign against the terror activities of the Kurdish rebels affiliated with the PKK, and Turkish soldiers and civilians are being killed in these battles almost every day. This conflict is perceived in Turkey as a justified one, aimed at foiling “a threat to national security,” which is why the opposition is cooperating with the government on it.

But with Syria it’s different. The chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, opposed the government’s request for permission to operate outside Turkish territory, saying “such approval is a declaration of war.”

While this opposition did not prevent Erdogan, whose party has 326 seats compared to 135 for the Republicans, from getting parliamentary approval, it points to a lack of national consensus on opening a new front while the battle against Kurdish terror is still raging.

This is a critical year for Erdogan, who is conducting a historic political campaign to change the Turkish constitution. The deadline he has given the multi-partisan committee chosen to draw up the new constitution is the end of this year. Some of the new clauses already have broad agreement, but a lot of landmines still stand in the committee’s path.

In 2013 local elections are expected to be held, with presidential elections the following year – the first time the president will be directly elected by the public and not chosen by parliament. During such a sensitive period, a war with Syria is liable to yield undesirable results for Erdogan, who would like to be Turkey’s next president.

These factors all make war between Turkey and Syria less likely, but a big question mark still revolves around Syria’s intentions. If a few months ago there were assessments that opening a front against Israel might help Assad by distracting Syrians from the internal strife, those same assessments could also apply to Turkey.

Turkey, which has already been declared an enemy of the Syrian regime because it “serves the interests of the West and the Zionists,” would also be considered a “worthy” enemy and a war with it could initiate the turnabout Assad so desires.

Provoking Turkey into entering Syrian territory might also lead to more open and direct involvement by Syria’s friends – Russia, China and Iran – and turn the internal battles into an international campaign that would buy Assad more time.

Nevertheless, although those three countries have declared that an attack on Syria would be akin to an attack on Iran, Assad has no guarantees that these friends will be so quick to send soldiers to defend Syrian soil.