With the despatch of a large flotilla of warships including three destroyers, five landing ships, tankers and support vessels to trouble torn Syria, Russia’s naval build up in the Eastern Mediterranean is rising that too at a time when the NATO power’s naval force is flexing its muscles in the region. Russia’s Defence Ministry said that 11 warships drawn from the Northern, Baltic and Black Sea Fleets were on a three-month training mission in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Whereas the NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2 comprising Turkish, German and French warships is conducting anti–terrorist exercises not for far away from the Syrian borders. Although the official announcement of Russia did not speak about Syria in this context, but the military sources said that some of the ships with marines on-board would visit the Russian naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus to “stock up on fuel, water and food.” The growing military activities near Syrian borders follows a flare-up of tension between Turkey and Syria over a recent cross-border incident when Syrian air defences shot down a Turkish jet, F-4 Phantom on June 22, 2012 that violated Syria’s air space forcing Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to warn Syrian forces to stay away from their shared border or Turkey’s military will respond. As turmoil continues in Syria with rising incidents of violence and killing by protesters in favour of their demand for regime change and extreme repression by Assad’s forces as a backlash, the international community continues to press for an intervention to stabilize the situation. Despite repeated call for regime change from almost all quarters including more prominent world leaders within and out of the country for past few months, the Syrian President and the head of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, Bashar al-Assad has refused to relinquish his iron grip over Damascus’ government. However, calls by the United States, European Union, and Arab League for any possible UN backed resolutions are being blocked by Russia and China in their apparent bid to protect their national interests. But the ulterior motive of both erstwhile Super Powers- the USA & USSR- has been the same since the emergence of Cold War-to contain each other’s sphere of influence.
Turkey’s expanding role
With last year’s military intervention in Libya fresh in mind, Russia and China are cautious about any NATO activity in the region. In fact, Russia’s ties to the Assad family led government are quite extensive from arms sales to Moscow’s only Mediterranean naval base in Tartus, Syria. This part of the conflict has been widely publicized but there remains another important side of the issue that needs to be mentioned in this context, that is, Turkey’s role in Syria. As the Syrian uprising continues, Turkey’s role is constantly expanding. And Istanbul is even playing home to the Syrian National Council (the largest opposition group) support for refugees fleeing the conflict. Through openly harbouring refugees fleeing the violence, Turkey has become home to the Free Syrian Army. The FSA is committed to fighting a guerrilla war against Assad’s government. Being highly mobile is at the core of guerrilla warfare and for the FSA holding static positions is impractical in that their opponent, the Syrian military, heavily outnumbers and outguns them. Seeking security by fleeing over the Turkish border is vital to their long-term strategy. As American military officials have discovered in Afghanistan, the ability of insurgents to seek refuge in Pakistan has provided a strategic challenge. As far as Assad’s government is concerned, Turkey became a belligerent as soon as they provided a safe haven for the FSA. At present the fighting has turned into a stalemate.
Assad’s forces present a tactical challenge for the FSA but the war of attrition is winning more supporters over to the FSA side. This is where the Turkish policy of providing safe harbour for Syrian refugees becomes an important factor. By providing a base of operations for FSA belligerents, Istanbul has become a natural target for Assad’s government. As commonplace in combating an insurgency, it should be expected that Assad would want to strike out against the FSA in their foreign bases, such as America using predator drones to target Al Qaeda bases in Pakistan. However, Syria does not possess the military or political facilities to act in that manner. This situation has already personified itself with the destruction of a Turkish warplane. In fact, tensions between Turkey and Syria have been mounting before the incident occurred. As foreign support for insurgents has strained multiple international relationships to the breaking point in history, this situation is no different. Assad is not helping the situation by changing his position from defending the action as a violation of Syrian airspace to simply riding it off as an accident.
The reality of the situation is that no matter what accusations the Syrian government makes, the deed has been done and a third party (which happens to be a member of NATO) is now involved in the conflict. The Turkish government has made the decision to mobilize its military along its border with Syria and it is highly probable that they have begun directly arming the FSA, which so far has only been aided with communication equipment. Currently, Assad’s forces have only had to deal with a domestic insurgency and the possibility that the conflict could expand and include open hostilities with a neighbour creates a difficult problem for Damascus. The possibility of downplaying this situation is bleak in that internationally and regionally Assad’s government has forced itself into a political corner over the way it has handled the uprising. As the state of affairs continues to unfold, military intervention is not a certainty but several things are certain. Through shooting down a Turkish warplane, NATO has a casus belli to intervene in Syria and Istanbul is not being shy about this possibility as it is openly inviting the NATO led military intervention in Syria. In addition, these circumstances present an opportunity to bypass China and Russia’s ability to veto a UN Security Council resolution concerning the situation. By drawing a third party into the conflict, Assad weakens his official domestic position that he is only combating a small rebel force. Assad’s switch from a hard-line position against Turkey to a half-hearted apology reveals the deteriorating state of his regime especially in the face of an external threat.
Syria’s soured relations with Turkey
Further, as plane shooting by Assad’s forces has already escalated the tense situation further, Istanbul’s stake in this mess is particularly high as well as its ambitions for predominance in the region because Syria’s fall will inevitably help benefit Turkey’s, consequent, ascendance. In the on-going crisis, Turkey is the only regional power that has the latitude to act. The United States and Israel are caught up with Iran’s nuclear programme, Egypt is still dealing with the after-shocks of the Arab Spring, and the Arab League has a plethora of pressing domestic and foreign issues. However, in some media and political circles the theory persists that Turkey is trying to reassert its former role under the Ottoman Empire of being the dominant power in the Islamic world. However, Istanbul’s behaviour in Syria does not mimic this behaviour. Historically, when it comes to Turkish-Syrian affairs most issues have concerned minor territorial disputes over the Hatay province. Some of Istanbul’s previous security interests in Syria were that it served as home to many members of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party that have been condemned as a terrorist organization. Over the last decade, their relationship has improved dramatically. However, since the popular uprising against Assad’s government began in the end of 2011, their relations have soured. Turkey has severed diplomatic ties with Syria and cancelled all trade and military agreements. In fact neither side has been able to make positive gains towards their political objectives, even though the media continues to highlight Russia’s arms shipments to Assad’s government.
Its usefulness in the current conflict has failed to materialize.
Without any external stimuli, the 16-month conflict will continue down the same path. However, there remains the state of the opposition movements. Some elements of the NSC and FSA are likely to become the de facto rulers of Syria if the current regime falls. The transition to a new government will provide many problems for not only Syria but also the region. Both the civilian and military leadership of the Syrian rebels lack cohesion not to mention any effective leadership. As Libya’s recent elections have illustrated, political infighting and more violence are likely to occur.
Amidst mounting tensions between Russia and the NATO powers over the question of continued support to the Syria’s Assad regime, the on-going military drills by both the stakeholders in the Eastern Mediterranean may present ominous portents to the peace and security of not only this region, which is an area of high strategic importance for both Russia and the US, but also to the whole world. In the prevailing confusion as regards the real motives of both the erstwhile contenders of global supremacy, what course of events may follow between the US and Russia as regards on-going Syria-Turkey stand-off is very difficult to predict.
Dr. Sudhanshu Tripathi is Asso. Prof., Political Science at MDPG College, Pratapgarh (UP), India