The fear of regional conflict has never been greater.
Two heavily armed regional powers -- Turkey and Syria -- are inching toward military conflict following the downing by Syria of an unarmed reconnaissance jet in international waters last week and the subsequent firing on rescue planes by Syria dispatched to search for the pilots.
While Turkey has shown restraint, its warnings to Syria are specific; any further military action against Turkish forces would be met with "retaliation." This includes a pointed message by Turkish Prime Minister Raycep Erdogan who said that Syrian forces advancing toward the border would be "treated as a military target." Syria has thousands of troops near its 566 mile border with Turkey who are there to try and stem the flow of rebel fighters into Syria. Erdogan's warning changes the rules of engagement for Turkish forces, making conflict more likely.
For only the second time in NATO's history, a member nation invoked Article 4 which allows a country to call a meeting of the alliance if it feels its security is threatened. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen condemned the Syrian attack on Turkey's aircraft but stopped short of saying that NATO would take any military action. The Obama administration also decried the downing of Turkey's plane while praising Ankara for its measured response.
Meanwhile, Russia is set to deliver more arms to Syria, including refurbished attack helicopters and a sophisticated air defense system. Indeed, there has been speculation from many analysts about why Turkey was flying an unarmed plane so close to Syrian air space. Testing Syria's Russian supplied air defenses is thought to have been one of the reasons for the plane's flight path.
The fear of igniting a regional war with Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iran siding with Syria and squaring off against NATO has never been greater. But it is thought that President Assad doesn't want a wider conflict, despite the fact that he acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday that Syria was in a "state of war." Assad's usual tack is to blame "terrorists" for the conflict. But in a televised speech following the swearing in of his new cabinet, Assad said, "When we are in a war, all policies and all sides and all sectors need to be directed at winning this war." As he was speaking those words, Free Syrian Army forces were hitting the elite Republican guard headquarters in Damascus. The attack on President Assad's personal bodyguard shows that the FSA is becoming more capable - and more daring, although it is believed they are still too disorganized to take and hold territory.
In shooting down the aircraft, was Syria sending a message to NATO that the country won't be the pushover Libya was? That's the view of Fawaz A. Gerges, Professor of International Relations and Director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. Gerges points out that radio intercepts by Turkey clearly show the Syrians knew the plane was in international waters and was Turkish in origin -- claims denied by Syria who insists it was unaware to which country the air craft belonged. "We had to react immediately, even if the plane was Syrian we would have shot it down," said foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi at a press conference in Damascus.
Prime Minister Erdogan isn't buying that explanation. And while the shooting down of an unarmed jet precipitated the crisis, Syria's firing on planes sent to rescue the pilots enraged the Turkish government. Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on Monday accused Syrian forces of opening fire on a Turkish search-and-rescue plane during the search on Friday for the F-4 Phantom jet. He said the attack was called off only when Turkish officials called Syria to tell them of the plane's mission.
In a speech before Parliament, Erdogan laid down a red line that Syria cannot cross: “Any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria and poses a security risk and danger will be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target,” Erdogan said. The Turkish prime minister said that there had already been several border incursions by Syrian forces, including at least 5 incidents involving Syrian helicopters violating Turkish air space.
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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