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Turkey’s Intervention in Syria

Will Turkey Really Go To War With Syria?

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Turkey’s Intervention in Syria

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Unless it felt its own security was at stake, Turkey is very unlikely to embark on a unilateral intervention in Syria without the green light from its partners in the NATO alliance.

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Turkey’s intervention in Syria has become a real possibility with the growing number of cross-border incidents pitting the armies of the two former allies. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says that “although Turkey does not want war, it is close to war”, but he has plenty of reasons to think twice before jumping into the Syrian quagmire.

Read more about the history of Turkish-Syrian relations.

Why is Turkey Reluctant to Intervene in Syria?

Of all Syria’s neighbors Turkey plays the most direct role in the Syrian uprising by openly hosting Syrian political opposition and leaders of the Free Syrian Army that fights the troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Having placed such a high bet on Assad’s downfall, Erdogan can’t back down, but for political and military reasons open war with Syria remains the least preferred option:

  • Lack of international support: Unless it felt its own security was at stake, Turkey is very unlikely to embark on a unilateral intervention in Syria without the green light from its partners in the NATO alliance. But Much to Ankara’s frustration, there is little enthusiasm in Washington and European capitals for another military adventure in a Middle Eastern country. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the main Arab opponents of Syria, are awash with cash but don’t have the military muscle to offset the lack of NATO’s support.

  • Regional concerns: A decision to invade Syria would antagonize Russia, China, Iran and Iraq, Assad’s key foreign backers. True, Erdogan’s Turkey is a regional power in its own might, but its economy is pumped with oil imports from Russia and Iran, and its security is vulnerable to foreign intelligence services arming the Kurdish separatists from the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK), who operate in Turkey’s south-east.

  • Fears of another “Afghanistan”: Syria is a mess. Erdogan can’t place much trust in the ability of the fractured rebels to finish off the regime, or rely on the opposition to form a stable transition government. Turkey risks getting bogged down in urban warfare with Assad’s loyalists (armed and financed by Russia and Iran), and opening the space for foreign Islamist extremists.

  • Lack of domestic support: Finally, the opinion polls say that a majority of Turks oppose intervention in Syria. A prolonged war with the neighboring country, coupled with attacks by PKK Kurdish militants, could hurt Turkey’s tourist sector and seriously impair Erdogan’s political future.
Read more about Russia's support for Syrian regime.

What Could Trigger Turkey’s Military Response?

That said, Turkey might still get drawn into a war it doesn’t want. More cross-border incidents leading to deaths of Turkish civilians; a destabilizing flow of Syrian refugees and rebels into Turkey as Syrian regime loses control over the borders; evidence of military cooperation between PKK and Assad or Syria’s own Kurdish minority, could all present Erdogan with a choice between losing credibility or some sort of a military response.

What Would Turkish Intervention in Syria Look Like?

Although Turkish government officials have been heard bragging that Damascus would fall in three hours, analysts at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy doubt Turkey would ever launch a large-scale invasion.

Turkey has superiority in air and on land, and Assad’s forces are stretched thin by fighting rebels on multiple fronts. Nevertheless, without NATO’s support Turkey still faces problems taking out Syrian air defenses, and stopping missiles capable of hitting urban centers in southern Turkey (see full report).

Turkey’s intervention would likely involve shelling of Assad’s forces and a limited invasion aimed at establishing a “safe zone” for rebels and refugees in northern Syria, effecting the regime’s loss of control over this strategically crucial area. To prevent coordination between Kurds on both sides of the border, Turkey might also launch operations against Syrian Kurdish groups allied with PKK who have taken over towns in Syria’s predominantly Kurdish north-east.

This way Turkey could hope to achieve key objectives without risking a wider war. But then, few wars follow the original script, as Turkey’s allies in Washington know well.

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