23 June 2012

Syria - Turkey: Accident or Casus Belli?

If you consulted your media sources this morning you probably already know that Syria admitted to downing a Turkish fighter plane.

This comes several days after the New York Times reported that CIA agents were in Turkey channeling arms to selected Syrian rebel groups and the arms were supplied by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said.
Yesterday, hours before the plane was shot down by Syria, Turkey issued a heavily parsed and weakly worded denial:
“There is no such transfer to neighboring countries, including Syria,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Selçuk Ünal told reporters at a press conference in Ankara. Ünal was responding to a report published in The New York Times claiming that weapons paid for by Turkey, Syria and Qatar are funneled into Syria via Turkey.
Given this background, one could conclude that the downing of the plane could lead to further escalation and could be used by Turkey as a casus belli clearing the way to a limited incursion into Syria. Moreover, such incidents are traditionally used to whip up nationalistic sentiments with politicians grandstanding and making fiery speeches about the heavy price to be paid by Turkey's enemies.

However, the official response from Turkey was extremely cautious and subdued. Both the PM and the President stated that they will wait until the circumstances of the shooting become clearer. In fact the President said that the plane "may have crossed the border" but he added that if that was the case it was inadvertent.

I checked the Turkish media sites. Pro-government outlets were downplaying the incident whereas anti-government sites contained more bellicose statements. And curiously these latter sites are joined by others who seem to enjoy the casus belli aspect.

In any event, besides the tepid governmental reaction, there are several questions about this incident.

The first one is why Syria shot down a plane without first trying to ascertain its purpose.  Between Syria, Cyprus and Turkey there is a rather narrow air corridor and mistakes can happen. Turkish planes routinely stray into Greek airspace, sometimes on purpose, and Greece simply sends a protest note each time that happens. (A well connected Turkish columnist maintains that the reverse is also true: just last May there were 17 airspace violations by Greek fighter planes)

Pundits seem to think that this was done to show the effectiveness of Syria's anti-aircraft defense systems but I seriously doubt that. They have nothing to gain from  showing their capabilities and they open themselves up to retaliation.

The second question is, why was there a fighter plane flying low and and fast as the Syrian news agencies claimed? The subdued response could mean that there was a clandestine mission that went wrong. There were recent reports about Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons and how to secure them when the current regime is removed.

But governments don't usually admit to such missions and they simply press ahead. Why the low key response?

The third question is why did Syria, after having shot down a plane without first asking for an identification, acted quickly to defuse the situation and joined in the naval efforts to find the missing Turkish pilots (and why did Turkey allow them to do so)?

And the final one is the deafening silence emanating form the US. Under normal circumstances, Secretary Clinton would never have missed such an opportunity to send a rebuke to Bashar al-Assad. Why the silent treatment?

There is clearly a lot more to this incident than we know at this point. And something tells me that we'll find out very quickly in the coming days.

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