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And Erdogan warned Syria not to mistake its forbearance for a reluctance to act: “No one should be deceived by our cool-headed stance,” he added. “Our acting with common sense should not be perceived as a weakness.”
Professor Gerges believes there is more to Erdogan’s warning about the border than a threat of retaliation. He said that Turkey was intent on “establishing a de facto safe zone that hinders Syria’s ability to move troops close to the border.” He added, “This will allow the Syrian rebels to gather strength in that the border area and advance toward the Syrian heartlands.” It will also facilitate the transfer of arms to the FSA — a task that the US has now become engaged in, according to a New York Times report last week.
The meeting of NATO ambassadors called by Turkey under Article 4 of the treaty resulted in strong condemnation of Syria by the ministers but a flat refusal to contemplate military action in response to the shoot down. “It’s my clear expectation that the situation won’t continue to escalate,” Fogh Rasmussen told reporters after the meeting. The alliance praised Turkey for its restraint, and in a statement issued after the meeting, said the downing of the plane was “another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard for international norms, peace and security, and human life.”
But events may move faster than NATO is prepared for. The change in Turkey’s rules of engagement on the border could result in events getting out of control very quickly. Ankara has moved tanks to the border region with Syria. It is clear that Erdogan means what he says and that both sides may be moving toward a military confrontation that could ignite the fuse of regional war. Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon, torn between factions that support Assad and those who support the rebels, would be hard pressed to remain neutral in any conflict with Turkey and the same could be said of Iran. So, while both Syria and Turkey may wish to avoid war, it would take enormous restraint if a border incident were to occur and military confrontation ensued.
In an editorial, The Independent says that the attack by Syria on Turkey’s aircraft “illustrate[s] the knife-edge on which regional security is poised. The nightmare prospect of a conflict involving Syria, Turkey, Israel and Iran becomes more credible with each passing day.”
And Russia is throwing gasoline on the fire, protecting its lone client in the Middle East, but making a regional war a possibility by continuing to supply the Assad regime with arms and heavy weapons. A Russian think tank reports that Moscow will be shipping half a billion dollars in military equipment to Syria, including “12 top-of-the-line MiG-29 fighter jets this year and to deliver a batch of repaired Mi-25 attack helicopters,” according to Reuters. The weapons are part of an arms purchase completed before the rebellion broke out, but included in the package are two sophisticated air defense systems that would add to Syria’s already formidable array of anti-aircraft equipment.
Russia insists that the weapons it is selling to Syria cannot be used to fight the rebellion, but this is nonsense. In addition to the attack helicopters, Russia has supplied the Syrian army with a 240MM mortar — the world’s heaviest mortar round which the Syrian army has been using with devastating effect in cities. One shell can level a building.
The Russians have also supplied Syria with its most modern tank — a modified T-72 that Assad’s forces have been using all over the country. Landmines, missiles, perhaps even chemical weapons have been sold to Syria as well as ammunition that is killing thousands. It’s clear that Vladmir Putin is playing for keeps in Syria and will do whatever it takes to see to it that President Assad survives.
The longer the conflict goes on in Syria, it becomes more likely that other nations will be drawn into the vortex of war. Even if both President Assad and Prime Minister Erdogan do not desire conflict, in such a tense, unpredictable situation, things are likely to spiral beyond the control of leaders who have set in motion the machinery of war and now find themselves at the mercy of events.
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