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Turkey's recent diplomatic offensive has been brought to an abrupt end by the Syrian conflict, which spilled into Turkey last night. The violence has revealed the weaknesses in Ankara's position resulting from its failed approach to the Syria Crises.
The UN Security Council is meeting later on today (Thursday, 4 October) to discuss the sudden flare-up at the border between Turkey and Syria. NATO also held an emergency meeting at Turkey's request, vowing to 'keep matters under constant monitoring'. But behind these rather routine diplomatic niceties there is widespread agreement that the Middle East may be facing a potentially grave new twist: for the first time since the 18 months-old Syrian civil war started, Turkish forces went into action against Syrian government targets. Is this a one-off episode, prompted by the need to retaliate for the initial Syrian attack earlier this week which resulted in the death of five Turkish citizens in the south-eastern city of Akcakale, or does it represent the start of a much bigger conflagration, with Turkey being increasingly sucked into Syria's internal war?
For the moment, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is evidently trying to give the impression that, while the clashes may be an isolated incident, they could also be a harbinger of things to come. 'Turkey', he thundered in an angry speech immediately after his country's artillery batteries went into action, 'will never leave unanswered the provocations of the Syrian regime'. But at the same time he added that everything will be done 'within rules of engagement and international laws', a hint that Turkey still has no intention of becoming directly involved in Syria. For its part, the Syrian regime and its acolytes have also delivered a similarly forked-tongue message. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi extended 'sincere condolences' to the Turkish 'martyrs' and 'the friendly Turkish people', who will always be brothers and friends". But Al-Manar, the Lebanon-based TV station controlled by Hezbollah and frequently used as a source of indirect Syrian threats to Turkey, claimed that 'Ankara has made from its borders a centre for lunatic military operations', implying that the flare-up may represent the start of a more substantial Turkish response.
Weakness and Bluster
In reality, the flare-up betrays a feeling of weakness in Ankara, a response from a Turkish government which is under siege, but loath to admit that its policies have hit a dead-end. Turkey's fight against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) has heightened over the last few months, with the Turkish military fighting one of its toughest battles in years. There have been more than 700 deaths in the last 14 months - one of the highest casualty rates since the PKK took up arms in 1984. And the internal strains caused by the Syrian war are just as acute. Turkey's south-western residents (many of whom are Arabic-speakers) are under great pressure from the never-ending flows of refugees: there are at least 85,000 refugees in Turkish camps already, with an additional estimated 30,000 elsewhere in Turkey and about 1,000 now pouring across the long borders daily. The Turkish government's inability to deal with these problems effectively is already prompting a popular backlash: all opinion polls indicate that up to two-thirds of Turkish voters oppose their government's current policy on Syria; they don't care what an alternative should look like, but appear to have reached the conclusion that the current policy pursued by Ankara is simply not working.
True to form, Mr Erdogan has tried to bluster his way out of this political difficulty. He has started accusing his main opposition leader - who hails from Turkey's Alevi tradition - of harbouring sympathies with the Shia Alawaites of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a classic Erdogan diversionary technique. He also frequently claims that the only obstacle to a 'humanitarian intervention' in Syria is a 'weak' West which may still regain its strength after US President Barack Obama is re-elected next month. And he has tried to reach out to Shia leaders in order to deflect criticism that Turkey is following a sectarian, Sunni-centred policy in Syria by supporting only the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council (SNC).
Unfortunately for Erdogan, this has not altered an emerging consensus among political and strategic commentators in Turkey that the country's foreign policy has been defeated at every stage. Only two years ago Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu hailed his country's policy of 'zero problems with neighbours': relations with former foes such as Syria, Iran and Iraq had considerably improved, efforts for rapprochement with Armenia were underway, and Turkey was putting itself forward to mediate in numerous different conflicts in the Middle East and beyond. Tangible gains from this diplomatic offensive are now largely absent. Relations with Iran are now tense, largely because of Turkey's decision to accept US missile defence installations on its soil, but also because of Turkey's policies in Syria. Links with Iraq are also fraying because of Turkey's decision to deal directly with the Kurds in northern Iraq, in order to prevent them from making a common cause with the Kurds of Syria, which Turkey wants to see crushed. Approaches to Armenia got nowhere, but Azerbaijan, hither to a close Turkish ally; seem to have been permanently frayed. And, if this was not enough, Turkey's aspirations to become the pre-eminent power in the Middle East are now being challenged by the new authorities in Egypt, who wish to play this role. In retrospect, it is clear that Ankara failed to prioritise its objectives; it spread itself too thin and now sees its policy unravelling.
Seen from this perspective, Turkey had to react to the latest military provocation from Syria if only in order to limit the popular backlash against the Turkish government, but Ankara may not have the intention of escalating its involvement against the Assad regime, especially since it faces a variety of other pressing security problems. It is instructive, for instance, that despite all the belligerent martial tones emanating from Ankara at the moment, no official has offered to resurrect the old Turkish idea of creating 'safe havens' inside Syria's territory.
Still, what seems to be happening is what we at RUSI predicted all along: a slow, gradual, incremental tiptoeing into the Syrian civil war by outside powers which don't wish to be involved but ultimately feel they have to. The current flare-up is not the tipping point. But it is the first warning that the tipping point may be upon us soon.
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.