24 June 2012

Syrian Missile Crisis

After yesterday's report that had President Gul acknowledging that the downed Turkish plane might have strayed into Syrian airspace, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs announced this morning that the downed plane was shot outside Syrian airspace.  

Normally, that would become a major incident in Turkey, stirring up patriotic feelings and leading to calls for punitive retaliation. Instead, despite this new information that makes the Syrian position more or less untenable, there were very few nationalistic calls to arms.

While the duality of reaction among Turkish media outlets that I mentioned yesterday is still there, today even the opposition side seems to have become more muted in its reporting. Pro-government sources continue to be cautious and they emphasize the cool and collected response of the government. One had, as the leading story, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's praise for Turkey's measured reaction. Another reported that despite the crisis a decision has been made to continue to deliver electricity to Syria.

The opposition media sites are less blustery this morning. They still work the national pride and appropriate response angle but after the PM announced that he is meeting today with all the opposition leaders to inform them of the government's road map they appear to be somewhat mollified.

They all report that Turkey's response will be announced on Tuesday. The so called road map will likely include a formal complaint to the Security Council, a request for an apology from Syria and a demand for compensation. The government let it known that it is keeping the US and Arab states informed about its intentions.

All of this seems to suggest a measured response and a desire to defuse the situation.

However, I am not fully convinced that this is all there is to it. There is a decent chance that what we witness today might be the turning point in the Syrian conflict.  

When you think that the official reaction is three days away, a rare effort to get all the opposition parties on board is taking place, a very detailed, multi-pronged road map is being used to deal with this crisis and a massive multinational and multi-platform consultation campaign is underway, you wonder whether this is not a preparation overkill for the downing of a plane.

After all, Syria shot down another Turkish plane 23 years ago and not much happened (they eventually apologized and paid compensation to the families of the crew).

My guess is that this will be used to pressure Russia to change its stance on Syria.  The crisis is too serious for Russia to brush aside Turkish demands and Turkey is a more important regional partner than Syria. It will be interesting to see what kind of text will be brought to the Security Council.

To ratchet up the pressure, Turkey could also let Russia know that it is prepared for punitive air strikes against military targets and would even be willing to create a safe haven for civilians inside Syria. As I mentioned previously, Turkey has been itching to go after the PKK militants who operate out of Syria and this could provide a cover for that strategy. As a limited response, it would enable Turkey to avoid the Pottery Barn rule but it would allow it to sweep PKK militants and appear in the process as a benevolent regional power willing to act to stop civilian massacres. The arms smuggling reports made by the New York Times would make more sense within that context.

Given the credibility of such a game changing response, Russia might realize that, unless it makes a U-turn, it could find itself backing the wrong horse.

To strengthen its posture, Turkey has just called a consultation meeting with NATO member states on Tuesday
Ankara has invoked Article 4 of Nato's charter, under which consultations can be requested when an ally feels their security is threatened, officials say.
I suspect that the Turkish demands for an apology and compensation will be formulated in a way to ensure a bristling and perhaps a negative response from Syria. As the beleaguered al-Assad administration would not want to appear weak by fully accepting blame and providing a humiliating apology they might react in such a way as to make the choice even starker for Russia.

It is too early to speculate about whether any of this will actually take place. But if on Tuesday we see a very tough text before the Security Council and a strongly worded demand of apology submitted to Syria, we will know that all of these steps we read about today were designed to achieve a larger goal.

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