Will Turkey and Syria Go to War?

  • 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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Ever since the anti-Assad demonstrations began in Syria over 18 months ago, there have been worries that the internal conflict would become a regional conflagration. As news over Turkish-Syrian border skirmishes continue to come out, many fear that this moment may come sooner than later. In Turkey, there is generally resistance toward becoming involved in a war with its neighbor, even though Assad seems to be betting that he can reduce Turkish support for the Syrian rebels by making it costly.

Reflecting on recent developments, Al Hayat’s Walid Choucair notes there are no clear winners or losers in the current conflict : “The Turkish test comes amid fears that the Syrian regime is mulling the possibility of moving the crisis to neighboring countries, in a bid to dramatically change the current situation. The more it is unable to crush the rebels and the more it commits massacres, and steps up the pace of its massive destruction of Syrian cities, the option that begins with Assad’s departure becomes stronger….Ankara has made its stance on Syria a point of convergence between it and Egypt, despite their implicit competition over regional influence. On the other hand there are Iran’s regional cards, which are gradually becoming less effective because of Tehran’s wager that Assad’s regime will survive, whatever the cost.”

In an op-ed for the Turkish daily Hurriyet Daily News, Murat Yetkin is concerned about Turkey’s difficult task, that of balancing deterrence without involvement in Syria: “Can it be possible that al-Assad is trying to pull Erdoğan into his war and change the course of it by discrediting Turkey, especially given the fact that a majority of Turkish people don’t want to get into a war? Erdoğan has to keep up Turkey’s deterrence on one hand and keep from falling into al-Assad’s trap. That is not an easy job as the whole region is passing through a dire strait.”

But as a Gulf Today editorial makes clear, Syria’s actions might make it impossible for Turkey’s PM Erdogan to avoid a conflict with its neighbor: “Syrian actions have risked making an unstable situation even worse, with countries like Iraq openly expressing concerns that the Syrian conflict could quickly go region-wide if it spills into Turkey….Turkey’s parliament approved cross-border military operations in a vote on Friday but indications from Turkey’s leadership suggest that this is unlikely, and that they are not intent on escalating the strikes…. Neither Ankara nor Damascus is offering information on casualties. They have imposed a heavy blackout on events so as to keep them under control and avoid the risk of a full-blown war….The Turkish leadership is finding itself in a corner. Erdogan may not want a war with Syria, but he may not have a choice.”

There are also those who believe or hope the two countries will find a way short of war to resolve the current impasse. For example, the Saudi Gazette editorial makes it clear that it does not consider the recent resolution by the Turkish parliament a bill of war: “The chances of Turkey and Syria going to war are extremely slim….Turkey is keen to stress it is not declaring war on Syria. There is no appetite for military conflict, which is noticeable in how conciliatory Syria has been since the news of the shelling broke. Damascus apologized for the shelling and said it would not happen again….The gravity of the situation was seen at the UN Security Council which overcame deep divisions over Syria to unanimously approve a statement condemning the Syrian assault. However, the Turkish resolution is not a bill of war but a preventative measure so that the situation does not escalate further.”

Others, considering the regional implications of a possible Syrian-Turkish conflict, see a greater role for the international community. The Peninsula editorial staff for example believe “Ankara is paying a heavy price for the uprising in the neighboring country and what is more galling for Turkish leaders, as they have put it, is the indifference and apathy of the international community….Turkey has suffered on multiple fronts due to the Syrian crisis. First, its relations with Iran, a key energy supplier, were badly damaged. Secondly, the active support for the rebels in Syria has deepened the sectarian divide in Turkey between the majority Sunnis and minority Alawites…. There is no reason why Turkey should suffer for the indecision and indifference of the international community.”

Another Gulf daily, Khaleej Times, also makes a call for both countries to cool their rhetoric and sees a greater role for the United Nations: “The situation seems to be further compounded with the rhetoric in which both states had indulged….What Syria and Turkey need to do, in the first possible attempt, is to initiate measures to fend off the crisis and ensure that amateurish attempts to conflagrate the crisis are subdued….Bringing an end to the civil war, defusing the border tension and finding a solution to the hundreds and thousands of homeless people teeming on the borders with Turkey cannot be shelved for another day. The United Nations is already trailing behind in finding a robust solution, and is devoid of consensus to this day. An express involvement is thus indispensable.”

There are those in the region who consider the geopolitical implications of a war between the two countries. It is clear however there are misgivings of what an ascendant Turkey means for the region. These misgivings are clear in the recent Jerusalem Post editorial, where the desire to see Assad’s regime replaced with a more friendly government are balanced against the possibility of a Turkey on the march: “Will the tense situation between Syria and Turkey escalate into full-fledged war?…  From Israel’s point of view, regime change in Syria and a warming of ties with Turkey would be welcome developments. Israel is closely monitoring the situation in both countries. But when it comes to changes in the Arab world, as we learned in the Gaza Strip and then with the so-called Arab Spring, one must be careful what one hopes for.”

The Saudi daily Arab News editorial makes a similar argument, albeit more subtly than the Jerusalem Post one, masking its misgivings for a greater role for Turkey that might be detrimental to Saudi interests: “[W]e Arabs have expectations greater than Turkey’s capabilities or do not take into account other circumstances….Under Erdogan, there is still much hope for Turkey’s significant role in Syria in saving the Syrian people in every sense of the word in urgency and movement. Turkey is militarily stronger than all the Arab countries and has a direct border with Syria unlike Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Therefore, Turkey has greater interests in changing the system to the satisfaction of the majority of the Syrian people to ensure the stability of the region and the protection of Turkey.”

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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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