Turkey's Military Authorization Means It Must Move Cautiously

The Turkish government’s decision last week to authorize Turkish military intervention with its neighbors was seen by many as an escalation in response to Syria’s shelling of remote Turkish border areas. Fehim Tastekin argues that, given the borderlands' topography and no immediate possibility of international intervention, Ankara needs to move cautiously.

al-monitor A Turkish soldier stands guard in an armored personnel carrier (APC) on the Turkish-Syrian border near the Akcakale border crossing, Oct. 5, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.

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kurdistan workers' party (pkk), kurdistan

Oct 8, 2012

The authorization our parliament issued [to allow Turkish military action in neighboring countries] is an Ottoman authorization — way beyond a Syrian one.

It authorizes the government to dispatch the Turkish army to foreign countries, without naming which one, by deciding “on its scope, quantity, aims and time.”

Unlike similar authorizations for Iraq, it doesn’t mention a specific country. The expression “foreign countries” signifies a wide expanse of intervention, almost as wide as expanding vision of Turkey’s foreign policy. It dovetails with Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s vision of himself as “leader of the Islamic world” that was noted when he sent greetings from Baku to Belgrade, from Baghdad to Kabul and Islamabad, and from Mogadishu to Tunisia and Algeria from the pulpit of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) Congress.

Not to worry. War is not imminent.

Turkey has been responding to Syrian agression since Sept. 23, within the framework of new rules of engagement it announced following the shooting down of a Turkish plane. Turkish retaliation, of course, helps erase any perception of Turkish weakness and soothes our angry public. It is also a message of determination to Syria.

Before everything else, war is not a decision Turkey can take by itself. A remark by a Pentagon official, “There is no indication that this will escalate into a larger clash,” shows our most critical ally continues with its cautious attitude. On the opposite front, Russia backs up Damascus’s thesis that [last week’s cross-border shelling] was an accident.

Other than the United Nations, the only platform that can legitimize an intervention [in Syria] is NATO. There we saw how the alliance found a clichéd statement expressing support for Turkey without any intention of taking further action.

What is important here is to forecast what the [Turkish military] authorization could bring about. Just like Akcakale, there are many other locations that were divided in two when the [Turkish-Syrian] border was demarcated. If there is clash in one half of such a location, the other half will surely be affected.

When you consider the topography, the debate whether [the cross-border shelling] was intentional or not becomes meaningless. The other half of Akcakale is Tal Abyad, which is under [Syrian opposition] control.

Similar border crossings such as Karkamis in Turkey facing Carablus, Kilis-Oncupinar facing Bab al-Selame and Cilvegozu opposite Bab al-Havva are all prone to such clashes. A development that would force Turkey to be on full alert will be if Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces cleanse Aleppo from opposition militants by leveling civilian residential areas. Then the combat will reach the Turkish border; not only the refugees but opposition militants, too, will pile up at our border. Pressure on Turkey would become extreme [were] the clashes to begin to [spread] to border crossings.

This would be a true disaster scenario. This is why Turkey’s parliamentary authorization [for military intervention] could well be a preventive measure to set up a buffer zone for the opposition along the border.

We know that because of the Russia veto at the Security Council creation of a buffer zone and a no-flight zone to protect it will not be possible. It is natural that Turkey look for its own options. The psychological impact of the authorization may allow a [Syrian] opposition that is suffering heavy losses to breathe a little easier.

When clashes reach the Turkish border, Syria will not want to confront Turkey directly. The condolences expressed for the Akcakale fatalities by the Damascus government were not issued because of its fear of retaliation; they were an indication that they don’t want a war with Turkey.

Assad will not want to get entangled with Turkey before his regime is about to collapse. Once the regime faces extinction, it may want to draw Turkey into the quagmire, but it is not there yet.

Although the authorization targets Assad’s forces, the area where it can be most easily implemented is the Kurdish [autonomous] region. Stern Turkish warnings to [the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)] to stop its operations after militias had fired on Popular Defense Units from the Turkish side — killing one of them — no doubt triggered a hostile attitude from the Kurds towards Turkey. 

The PYD, despite its connections with [the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)], had been sending messages of friendship to Turkey. But instead of winning them over, we made the Kurdish entity our outright enemy from the start.

We are repeating the mistakes we made in Iraq. Turkey, which fears the deepening of the crisis, is doing just that by its policy of supporting the armed uprising and demanding a regime change [in Syria] and now by its negative approach towards the Kurds.

The sad part is that there is no one who can forecast where this authorization will take us.

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