Why Turkey won't go to war with Syria Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has
yet to understand the new deal struck between Russia and the US.
Last Modified: 06 Jul 2012
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan never saw it coming.
He knew he was in trouble when the Pentagon leaked
that the Turkish Phantom RF-4E shot down last week by Syrian anti-aircraft
artillery happened off the Syrian coastline, directly contradicting Erdogan's
account, who claimed it happened in international air space.
And it got
worse; Moscow, via Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, offered "objective
radar data" as proof.
There was not much to do except change the
subject. That's when Ankara introduced a de facto buffer zone of four
miles (6.4km) along the Syrian-Turkish border - now enforced by F-16s taking off
from NATO's Incirlik base at regular intervals.
Ankara also dispatched
tanks, missile batteries and heavy artillery to the 500 mile (800km) border,
right after Erdogan effectively
branded Syria "a hostile state".
What next? Shock and awe? Hold your
Lord Balfour, I presume?
immediate future of Syria was designed
in Geneva recently, in one more of those absurdist "international community"
plays when the US, Britain, France, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council's
Qatar and Kuwait sat down to devise a "peaceful solution" for the Syrian drama,
even though most of them are reportedly weaponising the opposition to Damascus.
One would be excused to believe it was all back to the Balfour
Declaration days, when foreign powers would decide the fate of a country without
the merest consultation of its people, who, by the way, never asked them to do
it on their behalf.
Anyway, in a nutshell: there won't be a NATO war on
Syria - at least for now. Beyond the fact that Lavrov routinely eats US
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for breakfast, Russia wins - for now.
Predictably, Moscow won't force regime change on Assad; it fears the
follow-up to be the absolute collapse of Syrian state machinery, with
cataclysmic consequences. Washington's position boils down to accepting a very
weak, but not necessarily out, Assad.
The problem is the interpretation
of "mutual consent", on which a "transitional government" in Syria would be
based - the vague formulation that emerged in Geneva. For the Obama
administration, this means Assad has to go. For Moscow - and, crucially, for
Beijing - this means the transition must include Assad.
fireworks dancing around the interpretation. Because a case can be made that the
new "no-fly zone" over Libya - turned by NATO into a 30,000-sortie bombing
campaign - will become Syria's "transitional government", based on "mutual
One thing is certain: nothing happens before the US
presidential election in November. This means that for the next five months or
so Moscow will be trying to extract some sort of "transitional government" from
the bickering Syrian players. Afterwards, all bets are off. A Washington under
Mitt Romney may well order NATO to attack in early 2013.
A case can be
made that a Putin-Obama or US-Russia deal may have been reached even before
Russia has eased up
on NATO in Afghanistan. Then there was the highly choreographed move of the US
offering a formal apology and Pakistan duly accepting it - thus reopening
NATO's supply routes to Afghanistan.
It's crucial to keep in mind
that Pakistan is an observer and inevitable future full member of the Shanghai
Cooperation Organisation (SCO) - run by China and Russia, both BRICS members
highly interested in seeing the US and NATO out of Afghanistan for good.
The "price" paid by Washington is, of course, to go easy on Damascus -
at least for now. There is not much Erdogan can do about it; he really was not
in the loop.
Keep the division of labour intact
the perverse essence of Geneva: the (foreign) players agreed to disagree - and
to hell with Syrian civilians caught in the civil war crossfire.
absence of a NATO attack, the question is how the Assad system may be able to
contain or win what is, by all practical purposes, a foreign-sponsored civil
Yes, because the division of labour will remain intact. Turkey will
keep offering the logistical base for mercenaries coming from "liberated" Libya,
Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Lebanon. The House of Saud will keep coming up with the
cash to weaponise them. And Washington, London and Paris will keep fine-tuning
the tactics in what remains the long, simmering foreplay for a NATO attack on
Even though the armed Syrian opposition does not control
anything remotely significant inside Syria, expect the mercenaries reportedly
weaponised by the House of Saud and Qatar to become even more ruthless. Expect
the not-exactly-Free Syrian Army to keep mounting operations for months, if not
years. A key point is whether enough supply lines will remain in place - if not
from Jordan, certainly from Turkey and Lebanon.
Damascus may not have
the power to strike the top Western actors in this drama. But it can certainly
wreak havoc among the supporting actors - as in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia,
and, of course, Turkey.
Jordan, the weak link, a wobbly regime at best,
has already closed off supply lines. Hezbollah sooner or later will do something
about the Lebanese routes. Erdogan sooner or later will have to get real about
what was decided in Geneva.
Moreover, one can't forget that Saudi Arabia
would be willing to fight only to the last dead American; it won't risk Saudis
to fight Syrians.
As for red alerts about Saudi troops getting closer to
southern Syria through Jordan, that's a joke. The House of Saud military
couldn't even defeat the ragtag Houthi
rebels in neighbouring Yemen.
A final juicy point. The Russian naval
base at Tartus
- approximately a mere 55 miles (90km) away from where the Panthom RF-4E was
shot down - now has its radar on 24/7. And it takes just a single Russian
warship anchored in Syrian waters to send the message; if anyone comes up with
funny ideas, just look at what happened to Georgia
Time to shuffle those cards
Erdogan has very
few cards left to play, if any. Assad, in an
interview with Turkey's Cumhuriyet newspaper, regretted "100 per
cent" the downing of the RF-4E, and argued, "the plane was flying in an area
previously used by Israel's air force".
The fact remains that impulsive
Erdogan got an apology from wily Assad. By contrast, after the
Mavi Marmara disaster, Erdogan didn't even get an unpeeled banana from
The real suicidal scenario would be for Erdogan to order another
F4-style provocation and then declare war on Damascus on behalf of the
not-exactly-Free Syrian Army. It won't happen. Damascus has already proved it is
deploying a decent air defence network.
Every self-respecting military
analyst knows that war on Syria will be light years away from previous "piece of
cake" Iraq and Libya operations. NATO commanders, for all their ineptitude, know
they could easily collect full armouries of bloody noses.
As for the
Turkish military, their supreme obsession is the Kurds in Anatolia, not Assad.
They do receive some US military assistance. But what they really crave is an
army of US drones to be unleashed over Anatolia.
crosses into Northern Iraq targeting Kurdish PKK guerrillas accused of killing
security forces. Now, guerrillas based in Turkey are reportedly crossing the
border into Syria and killing Syrian security forces, and even civilians. It
would be too much to force Ankara to admit its hypocrisy.
anyway, should proceed with extreme caution. His rough tactics are isolating
him; more than two-thirds
of Turkish public opinion is against an attack on Syria.
It's come to
the point that Turkish magazine Radikal asked
their readers whether Turkey should be a model for the new Middle East.
Turkey used to be "the sick man of Europe"; now Turkey is "becoming the lonely
man of the Middle East", says the article.
It's a gas, gas, gas
Most of all, Erdogan simply cannot afford to antagonise Russia. There
are at least 100,000 Russians in Syria - doing everything from building dams to
advising on the operation of those defence systems.
And then there's the
inescapable Pipelineistan angle. Turkey happens to be Gazprom's second-largest
customer. Erdogan can't afford to antagonise
Gazprom. The whole Turkish energy security architecture depends on gas from
Russia - and Iran. Crucially, one year ago a $10bn Pipelineistan deal was clinched
between Iran, Iraq and Syria for a natural gas pipeline from Iran's giant
South Pars field to Iraq, Syria and further on towards Turkey and eventually
connecting to Europe.
During the past 12 months, with Syria plunging
into civil war, key players stopped talking about it. Not anymore. Any
self-respecting analyst in Brussels admits that the EU's supreme paranoia is to
be a hostage of Gazprom. The Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline would be essential to
diversify Europe's energy supplies away from Russia.
For the US and the
EU, this is the real game, and if it takes two or more years of Assad in power,
so be it. And it must be done in a way that does not fully antagonise Russia.
That's where reassurances in Geneva to Russia keeping its interests intact in a
post-Assad Syria come in.
No eyebrows should be raised. This is how
ultra-hardcore geopolitics is played behind closed doors. It remains to be seen
whether Erdogan will get the message.
Pepe Escobar is the roving
correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does
Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).