What Will Turkey Do If West Attacks Syria?

While Turkey has strongly opposed the Assad regime since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, supporting a Western strike could put the prime minister in a difficult position, given his anti-Western stance on the coup in Egypt.

al-monitor Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu speaks as the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition Ahmed Jarba listens during a news conference in Istanbul, Aug. 24, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.

Topics covered

turkey, syria, military, bashar al-assad

Aug 29, 2013

A joint Western military operation against Syria is clearly at hand. The Financial Times said in an editorial on Aug. 26, “There are no good options, but to do nothing is the worst.” The French foreign minister had uttered the same sentence several days ago.

Cutting short his holiday, British Prime Minister David Cameron returned to London and convened a key meeting on the action to be taken in Syria. For days, Cameron had been pressing the United States and France to do “something” against Syria. Britain wants to act. France, too, is willing. The “problem” was the United States. With the “Iraq syndrome” haunting its foreign policy, the Barack Obama administration — as everybody has long known — has no enthusiasm at all for a military intervention in Syria. But to stand by with folded arms was unthinkable for the US president after more than 1,000 people were killed in a “chemical weapons attack” in Damascus’ outskirts on Aug. 21, on the first anniversary of his declaration that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would amount to crossing “the red line.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry, another official to cut short a holiday, declared that the use of chemical weapons was an “undeniable” fact. His statement marked the beginning of the countdown for a military intervention in Syria.

A joint Western military operation is now looming for Syria. The friends and sympathizers of the Syrian regime are putting forward a myriad of seemingly “rational arguments” to show that it is impossible for the regime to have carried out such a chemical attack. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, too, has denied categorically that they are behind the chemical attack.

Yet, the record of the Damascus regime gives it no credibility, and to look for a rationale behind its political decisions is often useless. It is a regime that has mowed down unarmed crowds in demonstrations that erupted on March 15, 2011, causing 100,000 deaths in 2 1/2 years, and has massacred tens of thousands of people in Hama in earlier years.

Kerry said the evidence to be collected by UN experts in Syria would be important, but made it clear that the findings were not a must since “what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense.” Kerry’s words could be taken as the declaration of a “decision to strike.” But what kind of a strike?

The Aug. 26 issue of The Washington Post provides quite a clear answer: “President Obama is weighing a military strike against Syria that would be of limited scope and duration, designed to serve as punishment for Syria’s use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent, while keeping the United States out of deeper involvement in that country’s civil war, according to senior administration officials. … [The attack] would probably last no more than two days and involve sea-launched cruise missiles — or, possibly, long-range bombers — striking military targets not directly related to Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.”

Four US warships are currently in the Eastern Mediterranean, laden with 430 Tomahawk missiles with a range of 1,500 miles. In addition, Stealth aircraft, which have a capacity to carry up to 20,000 kilograms of bombs, are capable of taking off from their base in Missouri and reaching targets in Syria by refueling only once.

What does this all signify for Turkey? The action against Syria will be essentially a US-French-British operation, led by the United States. There will be no “boots on the ground.” The operation will involve solely aerial action, similar to Bosnia in 1996 and Kosovo in 1999. Thus, neither the Americans nor the French and the British will be drawn into the “Syrian quagmire.” The bombing raids that brought the Serbs down to their knees in Bosnia and Kosovo were also carried out independently from the UN Security Council.

In the strike against Syria, the likelihood of Turkish territory and airspace not being used is higher than the likelihood of them being used. Back in 2003, there were those who thought that Turkey was “indispensable” for a large-scale military intervention in Iraq, including some people who are presently governing Turkey. Parliament’s rejection of a government motion to allow US troops to enter Iraq from Turkish territory failed to stop the US invasion, which sought to topple Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. The move strained Turkish-US ties, and for some time Turkey had to watch the developments in Iraq, particularly in Kurdistan, from the sidelines.

This time Turkey is supporting the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime in Syria and is keen for a Western military intervention. But ironically, unlike the 2003 action against Iraq, Turkey is not likely to play any major role. A “coalition of the willing,” with the United States at the helm and France and Britain forming the backbone, is likely to accomplish its goals without becoming “indebted” to Turkey.

The essential objective is to punish Assad without toppling him. The military blow the regime will likely take is expected to prop up a bit the Syrian opposition, which has recently kept losing ground and positions. The magnitude of the “blow,” however, is likely to be calculated in a way that would keep a balance between the two sides, with neither of them allowed to “win Syria.” Hence, the potential targets of the operation are said to include the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division — commanded by President Assad’s brother Maher Assad and held responsible for the chemical attack in Damascus’ Ghouta suburb — and the bases of the Shabiha paramilitary gangs, which have been shedding blood for 2 1//2 years.

Certainly, there are questions to be asked to the government of [Turkish] Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who wants Assad to get a good bashing. The first and foremost one is this: What will your attitude be on a joint military operation against Syria by the United States, France and Britain, countries which you have kept accusing of hypocrisy regarding Egypt?

Regardless of whether the answer is one of support or objection, the fact remains that Turkey is stuck in an “off-side” position on Syria. A joint Western military operation will leave Erdogan caught between rock and a hard place. The prime minister has been carried away big time in recent weeks, hardly even knowing what he is saying. Hence, he should take no offence from the question Ihsan Dagi posed in his column in the daily Zaman on Aug. 27: “It seems that the ‘blood- and oil-thirsty’ folks are coming back to the region. They are said to be coming to Syria to bring down the Assad regime. Shall they come? Since you answer in the affirmative and since you are even urging them to come and offering them partnership, then are you ready to forget all your tongue-lashing of the West, the United States and Europe in recent weeks? And what would you now tell those who say that your foreign policy — which you claim to be based on ‘principles and values’ — is all but being ‘devalued’ with this ‘partnership’?”

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