Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Troop movements offer unprecedented security benefits for Turkey

Tensions remain high along the Syria-Turkey border after several violent artillery exchanges over the past week instigated calls for restraint .from the international community.

Close to 250 tanks were deployed to locations in Turkey's Sanliurga, Mardin and Gaziantep provinces when Ankara ordered the Turkish military to be ready for a possible clash with Syrian forces, unnamed military sources said Oct. 12. Air bases in Diyarbakir and Malatya also remain on alert.

The Turkish armour deployment comes as tit for tat military exchanges in early October escalate the potential for a misstep by already nervous troops. Both governments are taking the necessary precautions to avoid dragging the region into another hot war.

But there are other subtle reasons for these military deployments. Militancy from Kurdish separatist groups in the region has been on the rise. Turkey is exploring new ways of dealing with them and Syrian bombardments might assist Ankara in this. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is positioning Turkey to capitalise on the now almost inevitable scenario of a post-al Assad government in the Syrian capital Damascus.

The Syrian-based Kurdish militants of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), historically Turkey’s main security threat, may become temporarily vulnerable if Syrian President Bashar al Assad falls from power. Erdogan may take advantage of any political vacuum in Syria to strike militarily at Kurdish militants residing in eastern Syria to help secure his political position in the future.

On October 4 a mortar team in northern Syria killed five members of the same Turkish family when it fired over the border into southeastern Turkey. For the first time since the Syrian conflict began in the spring of 2011, Turkey responded decisively to the barrage by launching volleys of its own artillery over the border into Syria.

Perhaps the potential for larger military operations has grown with the recent artillery exchanges between the two nations. Yet the potential for fighting has been an undercurrent in the region since at least the middle of the year as provocations between Ankara and Damascus increased.

Back in June a Syrian surface-to-air missile struck a Turkish RF-4 reconnaissance jet near the Hatay province in Syria, bringing it down over the warm waters of the Mediterranean. At the time, Turkey implored its NATO allies to sanction a direct military response for the outright act of war but Brussels would not comply.

Turkey tried invoking Article 5 of the NATO charter which states that an attack on one member was to be treated as an attack on them all. Yet even as the Turkish jet was being salvaged by the Syrian navy, Turkey was politely requested to show restraint. Ankara was left with no choice but to issue just firm rhetoric towards al Assad. Ultimately Turkey appeared weak and lost crucial credibility as a military power.

Syria on the other hand treated the affair as a propaganda full-house, by intimidating the powers of NATO into backing down al Assad appeared untouchable. This time Turkey was not going to let Damascus dictate the situation. Ankara cannot hold back any longer when its citizens are being killed by forces loyal to the ebbing al Assad regime.

Whether the mortar strikes were carried out under direct instruction from Damascus or were the result of nervous border troops is unclear. The Turkish response was measured and appropriate, winning back some respect for Ankara. Both sides will want to de-escalate the situation before it quickly moves beyond control. According to an Oct. 13 Syrian Foreign Ministry statement, Syria is ready to begin direct talks to ease tensions with Turkey.

The ministry approves Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's suggestion that the best way to resolve the tension between Syria and Turkey is through direct dialogue by officials from the two countries. The amount of military events on the border area finally reached a point where Turkish armed response simply became inevitable. Neither side wishes to engage in open conflict, but neither wishes to appear weak.

Having proved its point that it will not be bombed with impunity, Turkey will begin to return to the defensive and monitor al Assad’s troops from a safe distance. Syria has warned the Turkish government to stay out of their internal war, driving this message home memorably by downing the Turkish aircraft.

Even though Ankara has not yet seen fit to intervene openly in the on-going, messy internecine Syrian upheaval, Turkey is reportedly facilitating the delivery of weaponry and supplies to the Syrian rebels. Aid for the rebels may now be increased by Turkey to draw the Syrian military away from the tensions at the border. Putting the rebels back in the firing line may theoretically alleviate pressure on Turkey while helping the rebels towards their goal of defeating the Syrian regime.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing heightened pressure domestically regarding the civil war raging to Turkey’s south.  

Erdogan received harsh criticism for his non-response to the downing of the fighter jet in June. Opposition political groups in Turkey suggest that Erdogan’s support of the Syrian rebels caused the violence to leak into Turkey fomenting the very situation in which Syrian mortars were launched.

Prime Minister Erdogan plans to change Turkey’s political system into a presidential arrangement by the end of 2012. For such a radical change to occur, the Turkish constitution must be rewritten and the draft ratified by a national referendum. Erdogan has already begun this process and plans to run for president as soon as it passes.

To achieve this Erdogan needs the support of the anti-Kurdish opposition group, the Nationalist Movement Party. Even with all the fighting over the Syrian border, as it stands, Turkey’s main threat is not belligerent Syrian troops but Kurdish militants. A negotiated settlement with the Kurdish separatists might scuttle any support he desperately needs from the National Movement Party. So Erdogan is looking for other ways to address the heightened Kurdish militancy. 

Because of the October 4 Syrian shelling of southern Turkey, the parliament in Ankara enacted a law allowing the deployment of Turkish troops to foreign countries. While Turkey has made periodic incursions into northern Iraq to engage Kurdish militants, it has not been able to strike their safe-havens in Syria.

The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) is a separatist armed organisation based throughout Syria, Turkey and northern Iraq. In the past, the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad addressed the Kurdish question in much the same way as Turkey: an autonomous Kurdish state is unacceptable to both governments.

But Damascus has had to pull away from this doctrine recently. Syria ceded de-facto control of its northeastern regions to Kurdish groups in July as it focused much-needed troops elsewhere to combat the uprising. If the Syrian regime crumbles, as is becoming increasingly likely, the new law outlined in Ankara could see Turkish unilateral movements into Syria against Kurdish enclaves.

Ankara is flexing its significant regional heft after a long period of adamant non-interventionist policy, but its geopolitical constraints will limit how far it goes. Moving against the Kurds is supported by much of the Arab world. However, the dynamics of Iranian-backed Iraq and Syria will dictate just how much opportunity Turkey will have to achieve this.

Nevertheless, the changing dynamics in the Levant offer Turkey an unprecedented chance to finally sort out an historical security matter for their benefit.

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