All eyes are on Turkey as signs of a military operation by a US-led “coalition of the willing” against the Syrian regime increase following the alleged use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians by forces loyal to the regime.
Russia and Iran, the two key supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, continue to insist there is no proof that the regime is culpable and suggest the Syrian opposition could just as easily have been the guilty party in a bid to spur the world into military action against Syria. While UN inspectors try to verify the truth of the matter, Washington and Ankara, among others, have little doubt that Assad is guilty.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been clamoring for international action against the Syrian regime for some time now, and the use of chemical weapons in Guta, near Damascus, may have brought him a step closer to his wish. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, for his part, has expressed enthusiasm for Turkish participation in any military action against Syria, whether this is sanctioned by the UN or not.
Answering questions for daily Milliyet on Monday, Aug. 26, Davutoglu insisted that the UN Security Council must adopt a resolution enabling the international community to act.
“Our priority is to always work under a UN resolution and with the international community. If the UN Security Council cannot come up with a resolution, then options such as those being discussed today will come to the agenda. If in this process a coalition is established against Syria, then Turkey will take its place in this coalition,” Davutoglu said.
Davutoglu’s remarks represent a break with Ankara's long-standing tradition of extreme caution in the face of any potential or actual intervention in the Middle East by Western-led forces. Turkey has also always sought UN resolutions before participating in such interventions. That was the case in the first Gulf War against then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a war in which Turkey participated.
Even that legitimate participation, however, deeply angered the very Islamists who are Erdogan’s grassroots supporters today. Although Davutoglu indicated that this kind of legitimacy continues to be Ankara’s priority, he is nevertheless saying now that it need not be the case with Syria. This radical change of position is bound to have regional and domestic ramifications for Turkey.
Turkey plays host to the US Incirlik base, near the southern city of Adana, which is home to a strong element of the US Air Force’s regional fighting capacity. It also hosts NATO’s US-controlled advanced radar facilities near the eastern city of Malatya, which were set up in the summer of 2011 to monitor missile threats from Iran and other sources in the region.
It is clear, with such facilities, that Turkey will have a key role to play in the event of any military action against Syria. However, this role will require authorization from the Turkish parliament. Any deployment by foreign forces in Turkey, or the use by them of Turkish territory in any way as well as any deployment by Turkish forces outside of Turkey are subject to parliamentary approval under the Turkish constitution.
A bill was adopted last year by parliament enabling the Turkish armed forces to enter Syria if and when the need arose. The bill was presented to parliament by the government after the fighting in Syria started spilling over to Turkey. The bill that was adopted is still valid until October. Government officials argue today that this is sufficient for any international operation against Syria. However, the bill that was adopted did not authorize the use of Turkish territory or facilities by foreign troops. The opposition is therefore adamant that a new authorization bill has to be adopted for any US-led operation against Syria.
In March 2003, parliament failed to authorize the use of Turkish territory by the United States in its invasion of Iraq. Senior US military officials still smart from this and claim it made their work much harder and costlier. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of the day, led by current President Abdullah Gul, wanted to facilitate the US invasion, even without a UN Security Council resolution that would have provided international legitimacy for it.
The authorization bill, however, failed to pass in parliament, falling short by a single vote, when many AKP members also opposed it. Their opposition was not just because there was no UN resolution. They also opposed the bill because of the traditional loathing Turks of all shades share for Western military interventions in Islamic countries in particular and underdeveloped countries in general.
Opposition parties will again be reluctant to vote in favor of such a bill, and there could also be maverick elements in the AKP that are also opposed to a US-led bombing of Syria. Meanwhile, Turkish military involvement in Syria continues to be highly unpopular among Turks, as a succession of opinion polls has shown.
Faruk Logoglu, the deputy leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), already expressed his party’s reluctance during a press conference on Monday, Aug. 26. He accused the government of trying to drag Turkey into war, and Davutoglu of being a cheerleader for it.
“Mr. Davutoglu is doing the leading in this. But you should know that any intervention in Syria without a UN Security Council resolution will not remain an intervention in Syria but turn into a regional conflagration, a regional disaster. We must take our steps very carefully. Turkey does not need a war,” Logoglu said. He also claimed that Erdogan and Davutoglu would be directly responsible for any civilian deaths in the event of a US-led bombing of Syria.
Meanwhile, analysts point to serious risks for Turkey and the Erdogan government if Ankara were to actively or passively participate in any operation against Syria. The twin car bombing in Reyhanli in May, allegedly perpetrated by pro-Assad elements in Turkey, provides a deadly reminder of the kind of retaliatory attacks Turks could face as a result of supporting a side in the Syrian civil war.
Turkey could also face unexpected direct or indirect threats and difficulties as a result of the strong support by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah for the Assad regime. Ankara might easily be dragged into regional disputes it never had to face in the past, and which the public does not desire for the future.
It is also known that Russia and Iran are on high alert against NATO’s US-controlled ballistic missile-defense systems in Turkey, and that Syrian airspace is protected by advanced Russian radar and anti-missile technology. These will also have to be factored in by the Turkish military if Turkey is to actively participate in the bombing of Syria.
Many analysts also recall Assad’s remarks that he would only use chemical weapons against foreign aggressors and invaders, a point that cannot be too comforting for military planners or Turks living near the border with Syria and who are already dealing with the fallout from the Syrian crisis.
In addition to all this, there is the unsavory fact for Erdogan’s grassroots Islamist supporters that having led an operation against Syria, it unlikely that the United States and other key Western members of the coalition will then leave the ground free for Islamists to take over.
The West will also have strong regional allies, lead by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which will work to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood and groups like it do not play a decisive political role in the region. These countries will also oppose political interventions in the region by Turkey, a staunch supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Participation by the Erdogan government in a US-led operation against Syria will also reverberate domestically. The fact that Erdogan has consistently maintained an anti-Western narrative when it comes to the Middle East will be cynically recalled by his opponents. Erdogan and Davutoglu will also be placed in a difficult situation with the Turkish public if the operation against Syria goes wrong and further aggravates the situation in the region to Turkey’s detriment.
Syria has turned out to be a hard nut to crack for Erdogan and Davutoglu, and there is no indication that the situation is going to get better for them anytime soon.
Semih Idiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have also been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.