By David Gardner: Last Friday’s downing of a Turkish jet-fighter by Syrian anti-aircraft fire is probably the closest Syria’s 15-month conflict has come to sucking in the shadow warriors behind the rebels battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The measured response of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish prime minister, belies his tempestuous reputation and means it is unlikely that Turkey, much less its Nato allies, will become open participants in the conflict – at least for now. Turkish officials have made it clear Turkey will not intervene in Syria except under an international umbrella. That would have to be provided by the United Nations Security Council and Nato, with Arab League backing – which looks unlikely despite UN special envoy Kofi Annan’s convening of an embryonic contact group to discuss a transition plan for Syria in Geneva this weekend.
But this does not mean that the Syrian conflict cannot be “internationalised” by accident.
There is, for example, already one instance in which Ankara has signalled it will react forcefully – if Damascus throws its weight behind the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which continues to wage a nagging insurgency in south-east Turkey. Although the PKK operates primarily from the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, many in its ranks are Syrian Kurds.
President Assad’s late father, Hafez al-Assad, long backed the PKK until Turkey massed troops and tanks on his border in 1998. Bashar al-Assad has sought to neutralise Syria’s Kurdish minority and keep them out of the current uprising by granting citizenship to hundreds of thousands of stateless Kurds, and using the PKK as enforcers in Syria’s Kurdish areas and as a foil to Turkey. That could turn into a provocative tactic. “If Assad resumes that game, you can be sure that we will respond by bombing Syria”, one Turkish officer told the FT recently.
But plans for intervention are one thing, and accidents that trigger it are another – especially in light of the Assad regime’s documented recourse to cross-border violence. In the past three months, Syrian troops or militia have fired across the borders of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Mr Erdogan has now changed the Turkish army’s rules of engagement to sanction attacks on Syrian forces that approach the border with Turkey, and moved armour and anti-aircraft batteries up to his side of it.
These new dispositions create a de facto safe haven for rebels in the north of Syria, helping to consolidate their extensive control of the countryside. As the summer wears on, the Assad clan is going to have to decide what to do about rebel advances.
While its willingness to kill appears limitless, the regime’s options look limited. For it has never been clearer that its strike forces – essentially the Fourth Armoured Division and Republican Guard, drawn mainly from the Assads’ minority Alawite community and under Bashar’s younger brother Maher al-Assad – are insufficient to regain control of the country. To recapture countryside in northern, eastern and central Syria would be to risk redeploying loyalist forces beyond the cities, just as fighting is closing in on the capital Damascus and defections are rising particularly among officers from the Sunni majority.
After repeatedly promising to impose a military solution, just as his father crushed Islamist insurgents in the early 1980s, President Assad’s options are narrowing. “Inside the Alawite community there is now real fear”, says a Lebanese politician who closely monitors Syria. “At the beginning everyone was convinced Bashar could solve the problem militarily, the way his father did. Now they have seen that he can’t, and he’s lost credibility.” The risk now, he said, was that the regime would lash out recklessly.
The younger Assad has over-reached before, notably in Lebanon and Iraq: the assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri forced his troops to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005; later that year, funnelling of jihadis into the Iraq conflict came close to provoking a US military response.
The regime’s international opponents have rejected all talk of intervention, for fear of the volatile sectarian cocktail spilling over Syria’s borders. That argument may need revising if the Assads internationalise the conflict anyway.