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Turkish-Syrian Relations Amid the Syrian Uprising

As turmoil continues in Syria, the international community continues to press for an intervention to stabilize the situation. As President of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, Bashar al-Assad refuses to relinquish his iron grip over Damascus’ government, more prominent world leaders are calling for him to resign. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has gone far enough to classify the Syrian Uprising as a full-blown civil war. However, calls by the United States, European Union, and the Arab League for any possible UN-backed resolutions are being blocked by Russia and China. With last year’s military intervention in Libya fresh in mind, Russia and China are cautious about any NATO activity in the region especially when their national interests are concerned. Russia’s ties to the Assad family-led government are quite extensive from arms sales to Moscow’s only Mediterranean naval base in Tartus, Syria.

This part of the conflict has been widely publicized but there remains another important side of the issue that deserves attention. Which is, Turkey’s role in Syria. As the Syrian uprising continues, Turkey’s role is constantly expanding. Istanbul is playing home to the Syrian National Council (the largest opposition group), support for refugees fleeing the conflict, and Turkey is openly calling for NATO-led military intervention. Assad’s forces shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom on June 22, 2012, escalating the situation further. Istanbul’s stake in this situation is revealing as well as its ambitions for the region.

Historically, when it comes to Turkish-Syrian affairs most issues have concerned minor territorial disputes over the Hatay province. Some of Istanbul’s previous security interests in Syria were that it served as home to many members of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party that have been condemned as a terrorist organization.

Over the last decade, their relationship has improved dramatically. However, since the popular uprising against Assad’s government began in 2011, relations have soured. Turkey has severed diplomatic ties with Syria and canceled all trade and military agreements.

In the ongoing crisis, Turkey is the only regional power that has the latitude to act. The United States and Israel are caught up with Iran’s nuclear program, Egypt is still dealing with the effects of the Arab Spring, and the Arab League has a plethora of pressing domestic and foreign issues. However, in some media and political circles the theory persists that Turkey is trying to reassert its former role under the Ottoman Empire of being the dominant power in the Islamic world. However, Istanbul’s behavior in Syria does not mimic this behavior.

Through openly harboring refugees fleeing the violence, Turkey has become home to the Free Syrian Army. The FSA is committed to fighting a guerrilla war against Assad’s government. Being highly mobile is at the core of guerrilla warfare and for the FSA holding static positions is impractical in that their opponent, the Syrian military, heavily outnumbers and outguns them.

Seeking security by fleeing over the Turkish border is vital to their long-term strategy. As American military officials have discovered in Afghanistan, the ability of insurgents to seek refuge in Pakistan has provided a strategic challenge. As far as Assad’s government is concerned, Turkey became a belligerent as soon as they provided a safe haven for the FSA.

At present, the fighting has turned into a stalemate. Assad’s forces present a tactical challenge for the FSA but the war of attrition is winning more supporters over to the FSA side. Neither side has been able to make positive gains towards their political objectives, even though the media continues to highlight Russia’s arms shipments to Assad’s government. Its usefulness in the current conflict has failed to materialize. Without any external stimuli, the 16-month conflict will continue down the same path.

This is where the Turkish policy of providing a safe harbor for Syrian refugees becomes an important factor. By providing a base of operations for FSA belligerents, Istanbul has become a natural target for Assad’s government. As commonplace in combating an insurgency, it should be expected that Assad would want to strike out against the FSA in their foreign bases, such as America using predator drones to target Al Qaeda bases in Pakistan. However, Syria does not possess the military or political facilities to act in that manner. This situation has personified itself with the destruction of a Turkish warplane.

Tensions between Turkey and Syria have been mounting before the incident occurred. As foreign support for insurgents has strained multiple international relationships to the breaking point in history, this situation is no different. Assad is not helping the situation by changing his position from defending the action as a violation of Syrian airspace to simply riding it off as an accident. The reality of the situation is that no matter what accusations the Syrian government makes, the deed has been done and a third party (which happens to be a member of NATO) is now involved in the conflict.

The Turkish government has made the decision to mobilize its military along its border with Syria and it is highly probable that they have begun directly arming the FSA, which so far has only been aided with communication equipment.

Currently, Assad’s forces have only had to deal with a domestic insurgency and the possibility that the conflict could expand and include open hostilities with a neighbor creates a difficult problem for Damascus. The possibility of downplaying this situation is bleak in that internationally and regionally Assad’s government has forced itself into a political corner over the way it has handled the uprising.

As the state of affairs continues to unfold, military intervention is not a certainty but several things are certain. Through shooting down a Turkish warplane, NATO has a casus belli to intervene in Syria and Istanbul is not being shy about this possibility. In addition, these circumstances present an opportunity to bypass China and Russia’s ability to veto a UN Security Council resolution concerning the situation.

By drawing a third party into the conflict, Assad weakens his official domestic position that he is only combating a small rebel force. Assad’s switch from a hard-line position against Turkey to a half-hearted apology reveals the deteriorating state of his regime especially in the face of an external threat.

However, there remains the state of the opposition movements. Some elements of the NSC and FSA are likely to become the de facto rulers of Syria if the current regime falls. The transition to a new government will provide many problems for not only Syria but also the region. Both the civilian and military leadership of the Syrian rebels lack cohesion not to mention any effective leadership. As Libya’s recent elections have illustrated, political infighting and more violence are likely to occur. However, one outcome that remains probable is that Turkey will have some sphere of influence over the new government, which shall enhance Turkey’s authority in regional affairs.