Are Turkey and Syria Headed for War?


Is it a coincidence that, on the same day Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Syria a "rogue state," he had his picture taken in the cockpit of a jet?

Conceivably. The photo-op was a presumably long-scheduled promotion for Turkish Aerospace Industries. Still, here in Instanbul the juxtaposition did not go unnoticed. The front page above--from the Daily News, the English-language counterpart to Hurriyet--was typical of Turkish newspapers today. And for the last several days Turkish columnists have been pondering whether, after Syria's downing of a Turkish jet near the Syrian-Turkish border, the chances of war between the two countries have grown appreciably.

It's an important question, because in the event of sustained hostilities Turkey would likely become the leading edge of an invasion of Syria backed by various Arab states and Western powers, including America. And this would make it hard for Russia, which has a valuable naval base in Syria, to stand idly by.

The closest thing to a consensus here seems to be that the answer is yes, Turkey is closer to war, but only marginally.

The affirmative answer derives partly from Erdogan's statement that "the rules of engagement have changed" in light of the Turkish jet's downing, and that Turkey would now respond aggressively to Syrian provocations that might in the past have drawn a more measured reaction. Even leaving aside what this says about Erdogan's actual inclination, it reduces his political room for maneuvering in the event that there should indeed be another Syrian provocation.

The reason for judging that, nonetheless, the chances of war have grown only marginally, is twofold.

First, Erdogan's response to the crisis has on balance been circumspect. When he consulted with NATO, he did so under Article 4, which sanctions "consultations" among NATO members, not Article 5, which would have been more of a call to action. (This decision may reflect his perception that other NATO nations are in no mood for war, but, if so, that reality itself militates against war.) And the same headline, above, that has him calling Syria a rogue state has him also conferring with Russia. Turkey, which does a lot of business with Russia, has no interest in reviving Cold War fault lines, to say nothing of starting an actual war in which Russia is on the enemy's side.

Even Erdogan's cockpit photo-op was in a sense measured. Though willing to pose in a jet used for both civilian and military training, he wouldn't let himself be photographed with a more unambiguously belligerent aircraft, an attack helicopter that was also unveiled by Turkish Aerospace Industries yesterday.

The other reason the chances of war have risen only marginally is that they were already nontrivial. Turkey, according to the New York Times, has become the staging ground for an effort, coordinated by the United States, to give the Syrian rebels arms that are paid for by Saudia Arabia, Qatar, and, yes, Turkey. By both hosting and helping to bankroll this effort, Turkey already qualilfies, from Syria's point of view, as a hostile power. As if to underscore this point, Turkey admits that the plane downed by Syria had violated Syrian airspace, though it insists the plane was back in international airspace when shot down.

All told, the main result of the downing of the plane was to underscore the fact that Turkey and Syria had already moved some distance toward war. Erdogan's response seems to have been designed to keep them from moving any closer, except to the extent that is required of a leader who wants to reassure his people that he's no wimp.

[Postscript: For the view that Erdogan's response to the crisis did more than merely balance the dictates of domestic politics with a desire to avoid war, and actually accomplished something tactically important, see this post from Michael Koplow's blog Ottomans and Zionists.]