This past week’s exchange of fire between Turkey and Syria was triggered when a Syrian mortar fell on the Turkish border town of Akcakale killing five Turkish civilians last Wednesday, 3 October. Tensions between the two countries were exacerbated yesterday when Turkey grounded a Syrian passenger plane en route from Moscow that Turkey claimed was carrying ‘illegal materials’, and then pre-emptively banned all Turkish planes from flying in Syrian airspace, ostensibly as a safety precaution. Further, last week, after the deaths in Akcakale, Turkey’s parliament gave Erdogan the green light to launch cross-border attacks on Syria.
Curtailments of potential conflict
Despite NATO’s recent statement of its full support for member state Turkey, it has made it clear that it is not keen on directly intervening in the Syrian civil war. The USA, in particular, does would not want to countenance any (overt) intervention in the build up to next month’s presidential elections. Turkey, although boasting a far larger and more sophisticated military than Syria, is somewhat battle-weary from continuous fighting with the Kurdish separatist group PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). Additionally, it is unlikely that a war with Syria will receive popular Turkish support, particularly amongst Turkey’s substantial Alawi community (almost a quarter of the population). And, of course, no-one wants to antagonise Russia – Syria’s unswerving ally which has much to lose if Asad falls – and give it an excuse to step into any potential conflict.
Why the heightened hostilities?
But, if war between the two countries would serve neither Syria nor Turkey, and is highly unlikely, why have hostilities increased to the level they are at?
For Turkey, this is an opportune moment, when it has the legitimacy and backing to retaliate, to further tighten the screws on Syria without actually going beyond the tipping-point for full-scale war. And Turkey, which hosts Syrian political and armed opposition, is well aware that Syria cannot hit back and would not want to. Indeed, the shelling of Akcakale provided an opening for Turkey to push the Syrian Army back from the border where it has been clashing with rebels in an attempt to cut off supplies and fighters channelled into Syria via Turkey.
Pushing the Syrian army back would not only prevent any shelling , whether intentional or unintentional, into Turkish territory, but a brief attack on Syria, without actually having to declare war, will give Turkey the opportunity to send a clear message to Asad of the potential consequences of Syria stoking the Kurdish issue. It will also give Turkey the space to soften the Syrian forces for the rebels and use the sort of force required to destroy heavy armaments near the border that the rebels, who remain outgunned, are unable to. Turkey has also been coming under increasing pressure from the Syrian opposition and Arab activists who support the opposition for not doing enough. These latest actions will go some way to silence those critics.
Despite the increase in hostilities, it remains unlikely that this will break out into full scale war between the neighbours. Such a scenario would not serve Turkey’s purposes; NATO will resist being dragged in and Syria does not want to escalate hostilities further. With all these international machinations, the future of the Syrian people, unfortunately, easily is forgotten.