The United States, Britain and France have hardened their position against the Syrian Baath regime, entering a phase in which “the use of chemical weapons” is supposed to be “punished” through military means. It is curious what role Turkey will assume in this phase, having claimed the leadership of the anti-Bashar al-Assad camp in the international arena over the past two years.
There are two possibilities:
1. The most likely possibility: Western intervention is conducted in the form of a limited operation. Turkey’s participation is not needed, or Turkey is expected to meet only logistical requirements. Such requirements are likely to have both civilian and military aspects, such as the use of Turkish air bases like Incirlik, communication, intelligence, reconnaissance, protection, humanitarian aid and evacuations.
2. The less likely possibility: Westerners conduct a larger-scale intervention and ask Turkey to be at the forefront of military action. That is, they ask that certain targets in Syria are bombed by Turkish jets taking off from Incirlik or the Erhac air bases. Hence, Turkey plays an active part in military action against Assad.
Assad’s response is unpredictable
The evaluations in Ankara suggest that the United States and Britain favor the first alternative. As a result, Turkey could end up with no significant role or even no role at all. Strategic assets such as the US fleet in the Mediterranean, the Paphos Base in Cyprus and Israel are considered to be adequate for a limited military attack.
Yet, it is hard to predict how Assad will respond in the said intervention scenario. This obliges the coalition to consider an “adverse scenario” in which Assad — who has refused to take any rational steps so far despite the availability of diplomatic channels — manages to repel the limited intervention and, emboldened by that, launches military reprisals against neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Israel. This requires an expansion of the intervention’s scope that goes beyond original anticipations.
So, what will happen if the United States tells Turkey: “You’ve led the political efforts against Assad. Now it’s time for you to act also in the military effort”? It is still unclear in Ankara how Turkey would respond. The only certainty is that the decision will be up to the political leadership, and that the Turkish military will act in line with the orders it receives.
The best possible outcome [that Ankara hopes for] is Assad stepping back at the end of a period of deterrent diplomacy, in which military means are prominently employed.
But how will the government and the military act if Turkey ends up being part of, or even at the forefront of, a military operation against Assad?
Sources say this would be an unwelcome situation. Yet, the government — having assured its Western counterparts of all logistical support for an eventual military operation by an international coalition — is likely to ultimately agree to active involvement in the operation as part of its “principled policy.” The military, for its part, would heed any such decision by the government. All sources I interviewed, however, made it clear they do not wish to deal with such an eventuality, all saying, “We hope there will be no need for that.”
Military and diplomatic quarters in Ankara maintain that Assad has used chemical weapons and must be punished. “If nothing is done, if the issue is passed over in silence, his crime will remain unpunished. The regime will be emboldened to continue such actions. This leaves no one with the luxury to procrastinate,” a senior official said.
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