The last time Turkish armed forces fought in Syria was at the height of World War I. At the time, Turkish troops associated with a decrepit empire based in Istanbul were battling against local insurgents and allied French-British forces.
Nearly a century after the fact, defense analysts and foreign-policy experts are in a fit about the possibility of Turkish armed forces again operating in Syria, this time most likely in alliance with French-British forces and assisting the local guerrillas against an outdated regime headquartered in Damascus.
In the aftermath of the Syrian downing of a Turkish F-4 Phantom reconnaissance jet, very near the Syrian coast and the Turkish province of Hatay -- which the Syrians have long argued is in fact historically Syrian -- everyone is wondering what the Turkish government will do.
On Saturday, the official Syrian Arab News Agency quoted a military representative as saying that "an unidentified aerial target violated Syrian airspace" on Friday. The plane was then shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft artillery over the Mediterranean Sea to the west of the village of Om al-Tuyour in the province of Lattakia. Analysts expect the country's defense forces to be on high alert due to the current domestic crisis and fears of foreign intervention.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said on Sunday that it would act "decisively" to deal with the incident and that it disapproved of Syria's "misinformation" about the events. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has praised the Turkish government for the restraint it has shown thus far.
Turkey has maintained its jet was simply testing its domestic radar system, and that it only briefly entered Syrian airspace, but was back in international airspace when ultimately shot down.
Although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was originally reported by Turkish and international media as saying on Friday that Syria expressed regret over the incident, he was later quoted in the Hurriyet Daily News as saying, "I cannot confirm whether they have apologized or on what grounds they did so if they apologized."
Analysts are speculating about what the jet was doing in the area in the first place -- perhaps conducting reconnaissance for the opposition, perhaps something more, perhaps just carelessness?
Turkey's NATO Call
But the more important question is whether the downing of the jet provides grounds for Ankara to call in NATO allies against Syria. Turkey may invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which stipulates conditions on collective action in their mutual defense pact. An outright act of aggression by a third-party nation would certainly qualify, but there is disagreement on whether the current incident and existent tensions in Turko-Syrian relations even meet that condition.
Some are arguing this is exactly the opportunity the Western allies have been waiting for: an excuse to enter Syria in force either to halt the violence being carried out against opposition groups in the country or to oust the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Cooler heads, such as James Joyner, managing editor of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, told Foreign Policy magazine that the alliance has no stomach for widening the conflict at this moment. "It would be one thing if Syria sent ground troops into Turkey and started shooting, but shooting down a plane that might have been surveilling Syrian airspace is just a different animal than that," Joyner said.
Yet, by Turkish accounts, Syria has already sent troops into Turkey to start shooting, albeit not at the Turks.
In past months, relations between Ankara and Damascus have soured. Turkey has opened its doors to Syrian refugees, many linked to the opposition movement against the Assad government, and many actually working for the opposition armed forces. The Syrian military has been troubled enough by these groups to make excursions into southern Turkey to punish them, at the same time raising the risks that they would themselves be punished by a much larger and more capable Turkish military.
The number of people who have already fled into Turkey is thought to be more than 25,000. Erdogan has said his country would never close its doors to Syrian refugees. Because of Syria's internal conflict, which began in March of last year, the country's government is certainly winning new enemies in its larger and much more powerful neighbor to the north.
Speaking during a historic visit to China in April, Erdogan laid out his country's differences with Assad. "In Iraq, the Baath party collapsed with Saddam [Hussein]'s decline, and only some ruins of it are left behind. Some want the Baath regime in Syria to stand because they want the autocratic system to continue. But we wish for Syria to have a multiparty democracy," said Erdogan.
Erdogan already said this year that the border violations offer grounds for Turkey to call in its NATO allies under Article 5.
Meanwhile, Turkey has called a meeting of NATO member states to discuss its response to the incident. Ankara has invoked Article 4 of the organization's charter, under which consultations can be requested when an ally feels its security is threatened, BBC News reported on Sunday.
Syrian Civil War Drums Continue To Beat
Meanwhile, violence within Syria is getting worse. Activists said government security forces fired on demonstrators in the city of Aleppo after Friday prayers. In turn, the government said that "terrorists" massacred 25 villagers in the province of Aleppo last week, which led the rebels to concede that they had killed 26 people, but that the dead were not civilians but government militia members.
U.N. observer patrols across the country over the weekend have been suspended due to concerns for the safety of the 300 unarmed monitors.
The longer the violence continues, the greater the possibility that neighbors and Western opponents to Syria may take further actions to support the rebels, either openly or more covertly. That could enlarge the conflict and bring larger commitments from Iran, which is already suspected of having deployed special forces to help back Assad.
But whether that means the Turks will be fighting Iranians in the near future is another issue for geopolitical guesswork and what-ifs. A war between the two has not occurred since the first half of the 19th century.
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