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October 15 2012 2 15 /10 /October /2012 06:28

Chances of Syria war engulfing wider region growing, but Turkey wading in probably wouldn’t help the rebels

REUTERS/Stringer
REUTERS/Stringer A member of the Free Syrian Army jumps form a military vehicle in Saraqib area near Aleppo in northern Syria October 12, 2012. The words on the vehicle read "Revolution Front."

The potential for Syria’s revolt-turned-civil war engulfing the wider region seems to be growing by the day.

Turkey and Syria continue to trade daily shell fire since five Turkish civilians in the border town of Akcakale were killed by the Syrian military last week. On Wednesday, a Syrian Arab Airlines passenger jet en route from Moscow to Damascus was forced to land in Ankara by two Turkish F16 fighter jets.

 

Tellingly, a meeting of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president and a chief ally of the Syrian regime, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, set to take place in Ankara next week, has been abandoned.

Oil prices have surged, in part because of the potential for all-out war between two of the region’s most important players.

But observers believe a Turkish invasion of Syria could do more harm than good, failing to help the rebels, inspiring a revolt by Syrian Kurds against Ankara and leading to a prolonged conflict that could become a breeding ground for jihadists.

For Turkey, which shares a 900-kilometre boundary with Syria, the events south of its border matter more than any other country. Ankara has repeatedly called for the Syrian regime to leave power and has greatly facilitated the movement of rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s forces for almost a year.

 

More than 100,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the violence have been sheltered in government camps inside Turkey.

But even Turkey’s membership of NATO has not helped quell fears it may be dragged into the Syrian mire.

For months, observers had expected Lebanon to be sucked into the Syrian conflict first. Now, if the civil war overspills its border, Turkey seems the most likely place for that to happen.

 

Potentially we could see what Turkey has done in Iraq, which has been limited air attacks on Kurdish rebel positions, but I don’t think you’ll see anything else,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

 

At the same time, it’s hard to see limited air strikes as altering the balance of power in Syria. It might give the rebels momentum but it wouldn’t result in a decisive reduction in the violence.

 

Clemens Hoffmann, assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, also believes a Turkish military campaign in Syria will do Ankara more harm than good.

 

There would be so much fallout for Turkey. Insurgents could operate more freely in Syria. The Kurdish situation could start up again,” he said.

 

Indeed, a prolonged Turkish intervention in Syrian territory may bring Syria’s two million Kurds into the fight. Ankara has been battling Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq for more than three decades. So far, Syrian Kurds have largely stood by as Arab Syrians battle the Assad regime.

 

What all sides fear is the potential for a prolonged and messy occupation of Syria that would lead to increased insurgency activity and an environment where jihadists could prosper.

 

A war would be a tragedy especially for this area where most people are Kurdish,” said Ahmet Sezer, a Kurdish teacher from Diyarbakir, southern Turkey, where thousands of Syrians have fled.

 

“The people of Diyarbakir want a solution but not one through the Turkish army.”

 

Yet the rhetoric continues.

 

In spite of an apology from Syria’s information minister and a promise to withdraw its army from the Turkish border, Damascus continued to fire shells into two Turkish provinces. Friday, Turkey scrambled two fighter jets to the border after a Syrian military helicopter bombed the Syrian town of Azmarin.

 

This week, a Syrian Arab Airlines plane en route from Moscow to Damascus with 35 passengers and suspected of carrying military equipment and munitions for the Syrian government was forced into an emergency landing at Ankara’s Esenboga Airport.

 

Syria and Russia have denied the plane was carrying illegal cargo.

 

General Necdet Ozel, Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff, has repeatedly made the rounds of the front line along the Syrian border where Turkish forces, including the 39th Mechanized Brigade, are now concentrated.

 

Turkish politicians are weighing in. Samil Tayyar, an MP with the ruling Justice & Development Party, said on Turkish TV Wednesday, “If Turkey wants, it can reach Damascus in three hours.”

 

But as loud as the rhetoric from Ankara has been, and in spite of the recent movement of Turkish troops and military ordinance to the border, a belief war with Syria is inevitable may be misplaced.

 

“I think Erdogan’s been huffing and puffing since Day One. The Turks have talked a loud game but haven’t done anything,” Mr. Barnes-Dacey said.

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