Turkey and Syria at the Brink… and Back

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

The downing of a Turkish military jet by Syrian forces one week ago had threatened to turn Syria’s unrest into an all-out regional war.  Though Turkey vowed to respond to what it perceives as a hostile act, Ankara has thus far behaved with somewhat unexpected restraint.  Many observers in the region believe Turkey has reacted skillfully and diplomatically, relieving those who feared that the regionalization of Syria’s internal conflict would have been disastrous.

In Turkey, the reaction to the Turkish government’s muted reaction has received mixed reviews. Today’s Zaman’s Birol Akgün has argued in favor of a more robust response: “One of the things that needs to be stressed and properly analyzed in this incident is that the downing of the jet is not an isolated mistake and that it is actually part of a series of events which some circles have relied on in recent years to test Turkey’s power capabilities and undermine its image and prestige due to their discomfort with Turkey’s regional policies….it is extremely important to manage the recent crisis with Syria by reliance on the tools and mechanisms of diplomacy and international law without resorting to war and to secure broad popular consensus on the steps and measures to be taken to address the problem.”

On the other hand, Hurriyet Daily News’ Mustafa Akyol believes “A war with Syria, or with anybody, would be a disastrous adventure. It would cost innocent lives, ruin the Turkish economy and overshadow Turkish ‘soft power.’ However, looking weak in the face of aggression would also be wrong. Erdoğan seems to have found the right balance….The obvious truth is that the Arab Spring opened a whole chapter in the Middle East. The gap between the authoritarian regimes and their people became starker than ever. And Turkey, for its credit, has done the right thing by taking sides with the people. This should continue everywhere, especially in Syria. Turkey should be relentless in its stance against the bloody tyrannies of the region.”

For the most part, the Turkish government has received high marks from regional observers and editorials. For example, The National editorial expresses relief for that fact that “So far, the incident involving the F-4 has not become a provocation for further hostilities between Turkey and Syria. It should not be allowed to. Regardless of the details, the regime in Damascus might use any escalation to justify further violence. The downing of the plane starkly emphasizes that Syria’s crisis is now a regional issue — which demands a regional and multilateral diplomatic action….The fear is, like in other conflicts in the Middle East, the international community gives up in despair. Indeed, it’s time to act decisively and consistently.”

Similarly, The Daily Star editorial approvingly notes: “Turkey’s measured reaction…reveals a welcome response at what could have proven a crucial crossroads in turning this conflict into a regional one….With Damascus receiving only covert support and assistance from its friends in Moscow and Tehran, any intervention would allow this help to become explicit. Not only that, but public and media attention would be diverted from the real news on the ground — the massacres and high-level defections — and would instead focus on the foreign troops. Simultaneously, military action would give the Syrian government even greater cover to continue their crimes. Instead, Europeans and the U.S. are right to step up sanctions against the regime, sanctions which have already begun to take effect.”

But not all in the region approve of the measured approach to Syria’s actions. Writing for Asharq Alwasat, Tariq Alhomayed thinks Turkey should have taken a more confrontational action vis-à-vis the Syrian government, hence, as Alhomayed puts it “the confusion at the lack of a Turkish response towards the tyrant of Damascus is warranted….Without doubt, the behavior of the al-Assad regime will help Erdogan to make a move against the tyrant more easily….Are the Turks actually moving, or will they move, even without a declaration of war, in order to accelerate the expected collapse of the tyrant of Damascus? We will see.”

However, there are reasons to believe that Turkey’s diplomatic approach in the end might have been the right one. As Khaleej Times accurately points out in one of its editorials, “Assad’s fear that his administration’s days are probably numbered has made him step up the offensive. The ever increasing headcount of massacred Syrians is proof of the fact that the debilitated regime will stop at nothing to sustain itself. So how will the international community curb Assad’s escalating tyranny? For the strategic players, a military offensive is not a viable option.”

 A similar sentiment has also been expressed by the Gulf News editorial: “The shooting down of a Turkish warplane by the Syrian armed forces could have easily led to heightened tension in the region at a very critical time. It is remarkable that both the Syrian and Turkish governments had the good sense to draw back from outright confrontation. That offers a small element of hope in the gathering chaos that is about to envelop Syria, as it moves inevitably towards civil war with dangerous consequences for the region.”

Finally, and perhaps not surprisingly, one of the main actors calling for a diplomatic defusing of the tension is the Iranian government. According to a Tehran Times report, “Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi has called on Damascus and Ankara to resolve the tension caused by Syria’s downing of a Turkish military aircraft through dialogue. The involvement of NATO or any other foreign country in the issue would not be ‘beneficial’ and would undermine good relations between the two countries….He added that tensions along the two countries’ borders should not be regarded as ‘insignificant’ because they can turn into a greater problem that would spark a crisis in the region.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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