The chances of a war erupting between Turkey and Syria appear to be rising. But the heated rhetoric of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government does not seem to be matched by public enthusiasm for conflict.
The escalation in tension follows an incident October 3, when Syrian shelling killed two women and three children in the Turkish border town of Akcakale. The Turkish parliament responded on October 4 with a motion sanctioning military intervention into “foreign countries.” In the days since, Turkish artillery has been returning fire at the Syrian army.
“We have retaliated [for Syrian shelling] and if it continues, we'll respond more strongly," Turkish media outlets have quoted the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Necdet Ozel, as saying.
While the Turkish Foreign Ministry has warned that “enough is enough,” opinion polls suggest a hardening and ever-increasing majority of Turks oppose armed intervention in the Syrian conflict.
The latest opinion poll, conducted from September 14-19 by Metropol, an agency considered close to the Turkish government, found 76 percent of 3,000 respondents opposed going to war with Syria unilaterally, although the figure fell to 58 percent if such an intervention was supported by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of which Turkey is a member.
“Most Turks consider Turkish intervention as such a quagmire like Iraq was for the United States,” cautioned Semih İdiz, a foreign-affairs columnist for the daily Milliyet. “There would be no public support.”
Despite daily news broadcasts showing the latest horrific pictures from Syria, opposition to Turkish armed action, until now, has been largely passive. But on October 4, thousands of people protested in the heart of Istanbul against a potential war with Syria. Similar, smaller protests were held nationwide in the first significant display of public opposition to Turkey’s stance on Syria.
After a decade in office, the prime minister is widely admired for his political acumen, invariably placing himself on the right side of public opinion. But this time, polls indicate growing opposition to his government’s stance. In a survey carried out in late August by the Ankara-based Institute of Strategic Thinking, a policy think-tank, only 18 percent of 2,200 respondents supported the government’s policy on Syria, down from 33 percent in a similar poll in July.
Even so, strategic considerations seem to limit Erdoğan’s room for maneuver, according to a former MP for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). “Turkey does not have a lot of choices in dealing with the crisis in Syria,” stated Suat Kinikloğlu, a former member of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee. ”The number one priority right now is that the Assad regime goes and a new Syria will be formed. Turkey could not stand by and watch Assad kill his people.”
“It is the right moral and political position,” Kinikloğlu continued. “But I acknowledge the risks.”
Turkey already is riding the whirlwind of those risks. In the past few months, the country has seen a dramatic upsurge in fighting with the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has been fighting for decades for Kurdish autonomy, but many of its members are Syrian Kurds.
Ankara blames the resurgence in fighting on Damascus arming the militants, a policy it has used in the past. “Turkey is engaging in a proxy war with Syria through its support for Syrian rebels,” asserted Soli Özel a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “It can’t complain too much if its neighbor retaliates.”
Any Turkish military intervention in Syria is likely to see Damascus playing the PKK card to the full, predicted retired Gen. Haldun Solmazturk, a veteran of the army’s anti-PKK campaigns. “It would be entirely understandable if Syria is attacked it will give its sophisticated weapons to the PKK, like hand-held surface-to-air and anti-attack missiles, which are very effective,” said Solmazturk.
With the Turkish army relying heavily on helicopters in its battle against the Kurdish insurgency, the rebels have long coveted such weapons, he added.
Continued escalation in the struggle against the PKK could boost opposition against a war with Syria, commented Sinan Ülgen, chair of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, or EDAM. “Turkish public opinion looking at the government policy on Syria has linked it to the rise in Kurdish terrorism in Syria and, therefore, the policy in Syria has become unpopular,” Ülgen said.
Unperturbed, Ankara is sending more of its forces to the 900-kilometer Turkish-Syrian frontier. On paper, the Turkish army, would be more than a match for Syria’s military, larger (404,000 personnel compared with 304,000 for Syria, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the US Library of Congress) and better equipped.
An October 9 statement by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen that the alliance has “all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary” appears to have bolstered official resolve in Ankara.
But with the prospect of war looming, questions, nonetheless, are growing about Turkey’s preparedness. Hundreds of its senior officers are languishing in jail convicted of conspiracy against the government or awaiting trial on such charges. “There is no political unity within the country,” warned Solmazturk, the retired general. “[T]his could be the worst set of conditions for going to war with Syria.”
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.