On March 23, 2014 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed that the Turkish Air Force shot down a Syrian fighter aircraft near the Kasab border crossing between the Syrian region of Latakia and Turkey’s Hatay province. Turkish officials said the Syrian aircraft strayed into Turkish airspace and they acted in self defense. Syrian officials said the incident illegally took place over Syrian territory. Turkish Hurriyet Daily News reported that the Syrian pilot ejected from the aircraft and landed in the “buffer zone” between countries. Over recent days the Kasab border crossing was the site of fierce fighting between Syrian regime forces and rebel fighters. Syrian sources acknowledged that their fighter jet was conducting attack missions against rebel fighters (whom they referred to as “terrorists”) at the time it was shot down.
The most likely scenario is that the Syrian jet accidentally strayed into Turkish airspace and the Turkish Air Force executed standing orders to shoot down any unidentified aircraft coming over the Syrian border. A less likely scenario is that the Turkish military erred in downing the jet over Syrian territory, or intentionally attacked it over Syrian territory in support of Syrian rebels the jet was targeting. Though nearly improbable, some Turkish opposition linked commentators are intoning that Erdogan ordered the shoot down of the Syrian jet as a “wag the dog” maneuver to distract from his domestic troubles.
Q1: Does this represent a significant escalation between Turkey and Syria?
A1: This is the latest in a series of violent events along the Turkey-Syria border since 2012, including the Turkish shoot down of a Syrian helicopter on September 16, 2013, which Turkish forces claimed was two kilometers inside Turkish territory and Syrian officials again said was over Syrian territory. Turkey’s Hatay province (which Turkey annexed from Syria in 1939, following a referendum) is a particularly volatile frontier in the Syrian conflict. Hatay is safe haven for Syrian fighters, as well as a major port of entry for the over 641,906 Syrian refugees formally hosted by Turkey (according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees). Border crossings are of particular strategic importance for Syrian regime and rebel fighters and frequently are contested and recaptured by both sides. Small arms and even artillery fire have crossed the Turkey-Syria border in Hatay and neighboring regions dozens of times, resulting in the deaths of Syrian and Turkish civilians. A May 11, 2013 bombing in Reyhanli, Turkey near a border crossing on the Turkish side killed over 50 and injured as many as 140. Turkish officials implicated Syrian regime elements in that attack.
The closest the two countries have come to direct conflict was June 22, 2012 when a Turkish RF-4 reconnaissance jet was shot down by Syria over the Eastern Mediterranean near the Syrian coastline. Turkey said the incident occurred over international waters and Syria insisted the Turkish jet had violated its airspace. Following that incident, the Turkish military has remained on a high state of alert in monitoring its airspace along the Syria border. That incident and an October 2012 shelling of the Turkish border town of Akcakale led Turkey to twice consult NATO regarding threats to its security, and in November 2012 Turkey requested that NATO contribute to its air defense as a show of alliance solidarity against Syrian aggression. In response, the United States, Germany and the Netherlands have deployed a total of six Patriot air and missile defense batteries to southeastern Turkey under NATO command.
Q2: Will Syria retaliate against Turkey?
A2: Syria is unlikely to retaliate for the attack, despite Syrian claims that Turkey shot down its aircraft over Syrian territory. Since widespread uprisings against his regime began in 2011 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly demonstrated that he is focused foremost on maintaining power and crushing political and military opposition, not widening the war in the region. Turkey has significant military superiority over Syria, and any conflict against Turkey would draw Syrian regime forces away from fighting Syrian rebels. If Syria retaliated, it would do so through proxies or its intelligence services—the same strategy it has employed for decades against its conventionally superior adversary Israel. Syria also has previously supported Kurdish separatist terrorist organizations operating against Turkey.
Q3: Will Turkey take further military actions against Syria?
A3: Turkey is unlikely to take additional offensive, conventional military measures against Syria. The Turkish Armed Forces are authorized by Turkish parliament through October 2014 to deploy troops to Syria if needed. However, Turkey has shown following the June 2012 RF-4 shoot down and at other times that is unwilling to take unilateral military actions against Syria, except occasional targeted, limited cross-border artillery responses. Despite efforts, Turkey also has not succeeded in convincing the United States or other NATO countries to militarily intervene in the conflict as part of a coalition or on its behalf.
However, escalation of its ongoing irregular war against Syria is possible. After breaking relations with Syria in summer 2011, Turkey has been a strong, outspoken opponent of the regime of Syrian President Assad, calling for his immediate removal from power and offering strong political support for opposition groups. Turkey is also widely reported to be supporting through covert means Syrian armed rebel groups, including extremist Islamist groups such as Jahbat al-Nusra.
Military intervention in Syria is also deeply unpopular in Turkey, whose electorate is grounded in the tradition of an isolationist foreign policy. While Turks are deeply nationalist and strongly support their military to defend the country, they are wary of any direct involvement in Syria. Turks are also wary of losing focus on their continued campaign against Kurdish separatist terrorist organizations, which operate from northern Syria and especially Iraq.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been out in front of his country with an outspoken Syria policy, inviting strong and frequent criticism from opposition parties. With increasingly important local elections scheduled for March 30, Erdogan is unlikely to take political risks related to foreign policy. Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party are under particular scrutiny as a widening corruption scandal involving Erdogan, his family, and top officials and advisors grips the country. In recent months Erdogan has taken actions widely judged in Turkey and among NATO allies as undemocratic, including interfering in ongoing corruption investigations and curtailing freedom of expression, capped last week by his denouncement and shutdown of the social networking site Twitter.
Samuel J. Brannen is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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