Despite Syria Retaliation, Turkish Intervention Unlikely

As Turkey steps up its military actions against Syria in retaliation for Wednesday’s mortar attack on a Turkish border town, the geopolitics of the Syrian conflict have yet to turn in Turkey’s favor.

On the day that Turkey’s parliament approved retaliation, the NATO country’s forces killed several Syrian soldiers. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cautioned, however, that he is not interested “in something like starting a war. The consequences of war are plain to see in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he told reporters in Ankara on Thursday.

The Turks warned Syria in June, after one of their reconnaissance aircraft was short down by Syrian air defenses, that further provocations would be met with force. Even if Erdoğan urged Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as early as March of last year to meet the demands of protesters in his country and has since supported his neighboring country’s opposition movement, a full scale Turkish offensive remains unlikely.

Syria has been largely isolated in the region since demonstrations against the Ba’athist regime erupted more than a year ago. The Sunni powers, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, back the largely Sunni opposition but Iran and Iraq continue to stand by Assad.

Turkey is anxious to position itself as the champion of the revolutionary cause in the Middle East since the “Arab spring” has repudiated its previous policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Ruled by an Islamist party but steeped in a tradition of secularism, Turkey sees itself as a role model for the political movements that have come to power in Egypt and Tunisia.

But the sectarian and ideological divides are only part of a regional power struggle that pits the Sunni countries, which are mostly aligned with the United States, against the increasingly allied Iran and Iraq, both governed by Shia Muslims.

Erdoğan engaged in a feisty war or words with his Iraqi counterpart earlier this year when he accused Nouri al-Maliki of deliberately stoking sectarian tensions in his country. Maliki, in turn, described Turkey as a “hostile state” and said that it aspired to “hegemony” in the Middle East.

Last week, Iraq dissolved a treaty that authorized the Turks to operate their armed forces across the border in pursuit of Kurdish militants.

Policy makers in Baghdad gave no reason for terminating the agreement which was signed by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 1995 but the timing suggests that it was not unrelated to the crisis in Syria. Maliki has been the only Arab leader not to call for Assad’s resignation and reportedly allowed Iranian flights over his territory that transported weapons and personnel into the war-torn nation.

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The threat of Kurdish separatism, which alarms both the Iraqis and the Turks and was why they signed the 1995 treaty, compounds the situation.

Assad appears to tolerate Kurdish insurgency on the Turkish border, presumably for fear of aligning them against his regime. Turkey has deepened commercial and diplomatic relations with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, purportedly to buy oil but the relationship also enhances the Iraqi Kurds’ bargaining position vis-à-vis Baghdad which weakens Maliki’s government, hence his “hostile state” remark.

Turkey may fear that northern Syria becomes a safe haven for Kurdish terrorists and, also to stem the refugee flow, favors the erection of “safe zones” or “humanitarian corridors” in Syrian territory which would enable it to suppress militant activity there. But if Turkey broadens its campaign against the Kurds, it risks not only losing the trusts of the Free Syrian Army rebels it has propped up; it would upset the Iraqi Kurds, thus jeopardizing its agenda in Iraq as well as its relations with Iran which could both interpret Turkish behavior as a push to reclaim Ottoman “hegemony.”

Absent a shift in either American or Iraqi and Iranian policy, which would respectively give Turkey the backing or freedom to operate more freely, its retaliation will likely remain limited: a demonstration of force to appease Turkish domestic desire for revenge and prove to the Syrians that they cannot continue to test their neighbor, rather than the beginning of a regional conflagration.

Nick Ottens is an historian from the Netherlands who researched Muslim revivalist movements and terrorism in nineteenth century Arabia, British India and the Sudan. He is the chief editor of the transatlantic news and opinion website Atlantic Sentinel and has been published in Asia Times Online, Elsevier and The Seoul Times. He is also a contributing analyst for the geostrategic consultancy Wikistrat. This article was first published in the Atlantic Sentinel. Read more articles by Nick.