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Could Turkey Go To War With Syria?

  • Charles Recknagel

Turkish military armored personnel carriers take positions on the Turkish-Syrian border near the Akcakale border crossing on October 4.

Turkish military armored personnel carriers take positions on the Turkish-Syrian border near the Akcakale border crossing on October 4.

The Turkish government has been given the green light to send troops into Syria if it decides such action is needed.

The question now is whether Turkey plans to do so.

Tensions continue to rise, with October 8 marking the sixth straight day the two countries had exchanged cross-border artillery salvos.

Coming after the Turkish government obtained approval from its parliament on October 4 for military operations outside its border, continued cross-border shelling heightens the prospects of war.

But for now, according to observers, that is not likely to happen.

Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Policy Studies (EDAM) in Istanbul, says "the Turkish government wants to deter future Syrian aggression and that is why it is taking all these steps."

"So, if deterrence works in this case and the message gets across, the hope is that it will help to deescalate and defuse the tension," Ulgen says.

He notes that the Turkish parliament's granting Ankara permission for a year to send troops to Syria places Turkey on a war footing that Syria cannot ignore.

But that does not mean that Turkey's sole interest in the Syrian crisis is simply preventing future border incidents.

Ankara has been among the most vocal states in calling for regime change in Syria and for international intervention to stop the killing of civilians.

And it has pressing reasons to do so.

One is the influx of Syrian refugees across its borders. Officially, there are more than 93,000 refugees in a network of camps along Turkey's border with Syria. Up to 50,000 more Syrian refugees are reported to be living outside the camps in Turkey.

But equally worrisome for Ankara are fears the chaos in Syria is helping to fan the resurgence of fighting between Ankara and armed Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay accused Damascus last week of directly aiding the Kurdish rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). "Syria uses the terrorist organization PKK against Turkey with all its negative attitudes and policies," he said.

Little Public Support For War

Ankara gave a measure of the scale of the fighting with the PKK when it announced last month 500 Kurdish rebels had been "rendered ineffective" by Turkish forces in the space of four weeks.

Yet if those are reasons why Turkey might want to take action against Syria, for now it seems determined not to act unilaterally.

Ulgen says one reason is little public support within Turkey for intervention.

"The majority of the Turkish population finds the government policy on Syria too hawkish and many people think that what happens in Syria is a concern for the Syrians and the international community should not intervene," Ulgen says.

That leaves Ankara thinking in terms of joining a larger international coalition.

Turkey has been among the most vocal members of the Friends of Syria, a group of countries seeking to step up pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while the Security Council remains blocked by Russian and Chinese opposition. The Turkish government has called for setting up safe-haven zones and humanitarian corridors to protect Syrian civilians.

Turkey appears most interested in involving its fellow NATO members. It has turned to the alliance each time it has clashed with Syria, calling for -- and getting -- emergency meetings not only over this week's border shelling but also over Syria's downing of a Turkish military jet, killing two pilots, in June.

Ankara's referral of both these incidents to NATO could be seen as efforts to prepare the way for eventually asking the defense alliance to intervene in Syria on grounds that member Turkey has been attacked.

But, as experts on NATO point out, such a request alone would not necessarily spur the alliance into action.

Barbara Zanchetta, a security expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, which is based in Switzerland, says action would not be "automatic."

"The NATO Council has to decide whether or not they will support the country that has been attacked and usually would have to support by consensus, without any objection," Zanchetta said.

For now, neither Turkey nor its key NATO members seem ready to take such final steps.

In the wake of last week's border shelling, the alliance said only that it "continues to stand by Turkey and demands the immediate cessation of such aggressive acts against an ally."

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