Contingencies of Turkish Military Intervention into Syria

Idrees Mohammed

Turkey’s increasing pressure has not prevented the bloodbath in Syria. Its top officials have, on many occasions, expressed deep dismay with regard to Assad’s efforts to find a panacea for the crisis and have warned that Turkey will not remain a bystander to events. The Syrian pro-democracy protestors are calling for the establishment of buffer zone to protect civilians. Observers question whether Turkey’s stern warning will trigger Turkish military intervention into Syria. In this regard, three scenarios need to be considered: firstly, unilateral military intervention that targets the regime directly; secondly, military intervention to establish a buffer zone; and thirdly, military intervention to implement “humanitarian corridors.” However, these possibilities are strictly linked to certain conditions that have to be justified.
The first scenario is that unilateral military intervention is unlikely. A core dimension of Turkey’s policy towards Syria is the formation of an anti-Assad chorus. The implication is that Turkey is trying to avoid taking unilateral action against Syria, preferring instead to coordinate with the Arab League, NATO, and other concerned actors to resolve the Syrian crisis. It is prudent to read the ramifications of a Turkish military intervention.
Firstly, Turkey fears the damage this could do to its foreign policy. For years, Ankara has extended its relations with different countries. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has established good contacts with many areas of the world including the Middle East. Intervention in Syria’s domestic problems by non-Arab Turkey may set Arab nationalist sentiments against the Turks. The image of the United States was very tarnished among Arabs following its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Turkish interference may cause the Arab street to view its relations with Erdogan as being at rock bottom, consequently, tensions with some Arab countries would rise.
Secondly, it will divide the region into two primary camps with opposing views. The first would consist of pro-Assad forces including Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and other “resistance” factions. Furthermore, this camp will take in segments of Iraq, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. The second camp would consist of anti-Assad forces including some Arab countries, and Turkey. Israel might also be included, especially if it receives assurances regarding the make-up of a possible post-Assad regime. The consequences are unknowable and the entire region could slip into instability.
Of particular concern to Turkey is the likely introduction into the game of Iran, a country with which Turkey is anxious at least to maintain, and certainly not worsen, its current relationship. With regard to Syria the divergence in objectives between Turkey and Iran is already public; Turkey was responsible for serious impediments to Iran’s shipment of military hardware into Syria. Iran’s response was to accuse Turkey of adopting the Western stance towards Syria and to demand that Turkey shift its policy towards favoring Syria or face difficulties from neighboring and domestic forces.
Thirdly, Turkey’s domestic situation does not allow for it to take unilateral military action against Syria. Turkey is in a state of flux as its people wait for a new Constitution and the beginning of this process ran into trouble immediately. Following a court case brought against Kurdish parliamentary deputies tension between the government and the Kurds mounted and several major clashes took place between the state and PKK guerrillas. Although the situation later improved, tension is still present due to the state’s ongoing arrests of Kurds. The opposition meanwhile will seize Turkey’s unilateral military intervention as an opportunity to denounce the AKP. The opposition may put forward the possibility of taking counter steps such as Iranian or Syrian interference in Turkey’s domestic affairs or the potential for triggering sectarian violence among the Turks between Sunni and Alawite sects for instance. Erdogan’s popularity inside Turkey may then be affected.
Ultimately, the perceived mistrust of the European Union by Turkey will be strengthened. Turkey believes the EU does not have the political will to accept it as a member state. This being so, the Turkish argument goes, a Turkey that is economically strong and regionally influential will explore its interests in areas beyond an EU that is in any case, economically troubled. However, should Turkey later attempt to re-apply for membership of the EU its prospects would be poor since Europe would see this as no more than a ploy to benefit Turkey’s national interests.
The second and third scenarios are the more plausible possibilities. Turkey could intervene to set up a secure buffer zone inside Syria, or participate in the implementation of “humanitarian corridors,” to help civilians affected by the unrest in Syria. If such a zone is created, the Turkish military would guard it. As far as the French proposal of “humanitarian corridors” is concerned Turkey is reluctant to be sucked into military involvement in Syria. While the border between Turkey’s Hatay province and Syria offers a probable site for this initiative the area, is, in fact, highly sensitive because the border is patrolled by the Syrian military. While the proposal falls short of military intervention, humanitarian convoys might need armed protection supported, ideally, by a UN resolution, should Damascus refuse to accept such a proposal.
Turning these plans into actions is tightly linked to certain developments in Syria, one of which is inter-sectarian violence. In the wake of that event Turkey would be vulnerable to a flood of refugees that may include Syria’s Kurds. In this context Turkey, conscious of its domestic issues, plans to intervene to prevent a repeat of the past scenario when half a million terrified Iraqi Kurds flocked across its border with Iraq.
As yet, however, the humanitarian issue has not reached a level to justify the implementation of those mechanisms. According to the UN humanitarian coordinator Valerie Amos, the present “humanitarian needs identified in Syria do not warrant the implementation” of proposals for humanitarian corridors or buffer zones. Foreign powers, including Turkey, are simultaneously seeking an international consensus and a UN resolution to implement the mechanisms. Insofar as the United Nations is concerned, the absence of urgent need creates obstacle for the proposals to be passed.
The latest sanctions recommended by the Arab League could possibly pave the way for the emergence of a resolution to the humanitarian issue in Syria. Advocates of the decision say these sanctions are specifically targeted at the regime. They hope the population will be able to cope. However, the economic package of sanctions will certainly affect Syria’s citizens and could develop into a humanitarian problem that will force a call for international intervention. In this regard, countries like Russia and China that currently threaten to veto resolutions against the Syrian regime may come under pressure to comply with international obligations. Should that happen other foreign powers will have the authority to implement “humanitarian corridors,” or create buffer zones.
Turkey’s attitude towards the situation in Syria is firmly connected to its own security, and Ankara’s current attitude towards military intervention could change if it believed its security would be jeopardized. Consequently top Turkish officials have warned Syria not to try to meddle in Turkey’s domestic affairs. Ankara expressed readiness for “any scenario” should the oppression in Syria enforce people to flee the violence.

Idrees Mohammed M.A. in International Relations, Warsaw.
Observer of Turkey’s foreign policy.