Syrian forces shot down a Turkish jet last Friday. With tensions already high, the attack raised the prospect of sudden escalation, even though Turkey has avoided conflict with Syria since last year. Over the weekend, two contradictory accounts took shape. Turkish officials now claim that the F-4 Phantom was shot down over international waters while on a training mission. It accidentally crossed into Syrian territory but was shot down a full 15 minutes after it corrected course. The Syrians apologized immediately but remain steadfast. They insist the Turkish plane was fired on over Syrian territory.
In an emergency meeting today, NATO affirmed its commitment to Turkish security, saying the attack was yet “another example of the Syrian government’s disregard for international norms of peace, security and human life.” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke bluntly to parliamentarians in Ankara, saying that Turkey would be less forgiving of Syrian military activities near the border now. “The rules of engagement of the Turkish Armed Forces have changed,” he said. “Any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria by posing a security risk and danger will be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target.” He referred to Syria as “an open threat to Turkey.”
Tough statements by Erdogan and NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen have reduced tensions by promising a tougher response next time. With today’s remarks, Erdogan did lower the bar for what actions may be tolerated along the border. This could result in escalation later but that’s only if the sentiment is acted upon. At the very least, Turkey has created the expectation that retaliation in the future will be international and overwhelming.
Turkey’s response has been quite revealing. It proves Ankara still dreads any escalation of the crisis, at least until more countries are committed to resolving it and assuming responsibility for the aftermath. The popular reaction to the attack was even more revealing because it mostly echoed Turkish policy. While the killing of Turkish airmen might normally accelerate a debate over what to do about Syria, it seems a consensus has already been reached. Editorials in Turkish dailies largely hailed the official response because it avoided war.
On June 25, Hurriyet published a column by Taha Akyol, who emphasized that Turkey’s reaction must be politically forceful but not physically violent. “Naturally, Turkey’s political reaction must be strong enough to deter similar attempts in the future. Similarly, the international community must show a reaction that will discourage a Syrian regime that has been murdering its own people from similar adventures in the future.”
Asli Aydintasbas, writing for Milleyet, sounded a similar note. “Let me make this clear right away: Turkey will not go to war with Syria,” she wrote. “Quite aside from how bad war is, the government I know has no such intention. There is no climate for this. There is no need for this. The general public is largely disinterested in Syria while those who are interested are unwilling. This government does not make any move without checking the public’s pulse first, and it has no intention of simply kicking in Syria’s door and throwing itself across the border.” She also praised the opposition for backing Erdogan and his AKP party. In doing so, the Republican People’s Party confirmed Turkey’s status as an “advanced democracy.”
A day later, Hurriyet columnist Mehmet Ali Birand argued that “Ankara managed the crisis very well.” He also focused on how Turkey’s Kemalist-nationalist opposition responded to Friday’s events, further demonstrating the power of the Turkish consensus:
The opposition also adopted a remarkable stance in this crisis. Naturally, the expectation of the public was that the opposition leader would drag the ruling party through the mud. Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was expected to accuse Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of humiliating the country. We have always been accustomed to that. No matter what happens, the habit of criticizing the government was not processed this time.
Kilicdaroglu took the first step. With his first statement, he acted extremely prudently and actually set the tone of the opposition. After him the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, and Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) co-chair Selahattin Demirtas followed.
As a matter of fact, this is what is supposed to be, but we have gotten so used to the cockfighting for years that we are surprised when we encounter a normal situation. Indeed, both the just position of Turkey and the government’s prompt briefing and informing efforts played an important role in this stance of the opposition.
In an article published by Today’s Zaman on June 26, Abdullah Bozkurt argued that war would be a mistake because the military cannot be trusted:
From the domestic perspective, there is also a campaign from some circles to push Turkey into the Syrian debacle. That is a dangerous game as well. In case we have forgotten, it was only nine years ago that a group of senior generals in the Turkish army drafted a military coup plan called Sledgehammer to oust the popular civilian government in Turkey. According to the court indictment, the coup plotters hideously planned to force a Greek fighter jet to shoot down a Turkish fighter plane over the Aegean during a dogfight and, if that were to fail, to instruct a Turkish pilot to take down a Turkish jet in order to shift the blame to the Greek side. The aim was to bring Turkey to the brink of war with Greece so that the new Turkish government would be made to look weak and embarrassed in the eyes of the public, creating the perfect environment for a military takeover.
The Sledgehammer trial, which started in 2010, is still going on at the Istanbul High Criminal Court. Does Turkey have enough trust in the generals in the army now that they will not make a stupid move on the Syrian front just to do what they failed to do in the Greek scenario? Has the military fully surrendered to the idea of democratic control of the armed forces, necessary for an EU candidate country? Looking at how hard the representatives of the chief of General Staff have been lobbying the government on various bills and drafts in the Turkish Parliament to escape from civilian control, as we saw in the Ombudsman Law two weeks ago, one has to say the government should have genuine doubts in that regard.
Dissenting views are few. Cengiz Candar’s editorial for Radikal on June 26 complained that “Turkey’s regional and international profile is that of a state that barks but does not bite.” Candar pointed to two incidents that suggest Turkish power is not taken seriously: Friday’s attack and the Mavi Marmara episode in 2010 (when Israeli commandos intercepted a vessel carrying Turkish humanitarians who tried to break the Gaza blockade). According to Candar, a forceful response is befitting of a superpower. While he disagrees with the Turkish consensus, he is convinced Turkey will not act. He frames Turkey’s predicament as question of identity. Is Turkey a “tribal state” that would seek revenge for humiliation? Candar says “No.”
The Turkish consensus seems stronger than ever. But NATO and Turkey have drawn their line in the sand now. Should Assad cross it, Ankara may be forced to break with popular opinion. At the very least it will have to make a case for action. If any politician is up to the task, it’s Erdogan.