Syria puts double whammy on Turkey

By M K Bhadrakumar

The shooting down of a Turkish fighter aircraft by Syria on Friday has become a classic case of coercive diplomacy.

A Turkish F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft disappeared from radar screens shortly after taking off from the Erhach airbase in Malatya province in southeastern Turkey and entered Syrian airspace. According to Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), air-defense forces shot down the plane 1 kilometer off the coast from the Syrian port city of Latakia. A Turkish search-and-rescue aircraft rushed to the area of the crash but came under Syrian fire and had to pull out.

The Russian naval base at Tartus is only 90 kilometers by road from Latakia. The incident took place on a day that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem was on a visit to Russia.

It also happened within a week of Britain staging a high-profile publicity event to humiliate Russia by canceling the insurance of a ship when it was off the coast of Scotland en route to Syria from Russia's Baltic port in Kaliningrad. British Foreign Secretary William Hague scrambled to take credit for that in the House of Commons.

The shooting down of the Turkish jet also coincides with a hardening of the Russian position on Syria. Moscow refused to comment on the incident when Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu telephoned his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Sunday seeking understanding.

Itar-Tass quoted the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying the two diplomats "discussed the situation around Syria, including within the context of the incident with a Turkish fighter jet". Plainly put, Moscow was unwilling to treat Friday's incident in total isolation. Nor was it prepared to censure Damascus.

Unrealistic demand
Indeed, the Russian stance has perceptibly hardened in the past week in response to a recent series of provocative rhetoric by the United States and London's stage-managed event on June 18 to smear Moscow's stance on Syria.

On Thursday, Lavrov bluntly warned that Russia would not countenance a replay of the Libyan scenario in Syria: "A replication of the Libyan scenario in Syria won't be admitted, and we [Russia] can guarantee this." Lavrov was dismissive of Western demands for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, calling them "unrealistic". He insisted that "at least 50 percent" of Syrian people supported Assad's party in the recent parliamentary elections.

Again, on Sunday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov told Interfax: "We have no doubt that the imposition of any kind of regime change in Damascus from outside, and the one-sided support of the opposition, is a straight path to plunge the country into an abyss of full civil war."

One major reason for this hardening of the Russian stance was Britain's publicity stunt on June 18. Moscow hit back by deciding that the ship carrying Russian helicopters to Syria, which was turned back after its insurance was cut, will resume its journey under escort from the Russian port of Murmansk after changing its flag to the Russian Standard.

The ship is apparently carrying up to 15 Mil Mi-25 helicopters that were repaired in Kaliningrad. The helicopters were originally bought by Assad's late father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad at the end of the 1980s. What made Moscow furious was that both Hague and his US counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, tried to propagate stories that the ship carried fresh arms supplies to Syria. Lavrov said:
"We are not going to make any excuses, because we did not breach anything. We violated neither international law nor UN Security Council resolutions nor our national legislation on export control ... We supply armaments under contracts, which imply purchase by Syria of primarily anti-aircraft means from us, which may be needed only in case of external aggression against the Syrian state. [Emphasis added.]
Interestingly, Lavrov said this on Sunday after the shooting down of the Turkish jet.

Momentary violation

It is against the totality of this background that the Syrian action against the Turkish aircraft needs to be weighed. Damascus has a reputation for "poker diplomacy". It may have conveyed a host of signals to Turkey (and its Western allies):
  • Syria's air-defense system is effective and lethal;
  • There will be a price to pay if Turkey keeps escalating its interference in Syria;
  • Turkey's military superiority has its limits;
  • The Syrian crisis can easily flare up into a regional crisis.
Yet Syria's official stance over Friday's incident has been very restrained, almost apologetic. To be sure, Syria cooperated with Turkey to locate the wreckage of the aircraft. Damascus admitted with a straight face that it was a regrettable incident but an inadvertent act and said the two countries should put it behind them. Syria meant no harm and the incident happened only because Syrian forces were under orders to shoot down foreign military aircraft that violated national airspace.

Turkey, of course, is fuming, knowing full well that Syria is a deep player. The Turkish government went into a huddle. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was expected to make a statement in parliament Tuesday. President Abdullah Gul said, "It is not possible to cover over a thing like this; whatever is necessary will be done."

Foreign Minister Davutoglu, however, has rejected the Syrian version of the incident. He said: "Our plane was shot down in international airspace, 13 nautical miles from Syria ... The plane did not show any sign of hostility toward Syria and was shot down about 15 minutes after having momentarily violated Syrian airspace." He dismissed Syria's plea that it did not know the plane was Turkish.

Davutoglu claimed that Turkey had intercepted radio communications from the Syrian side suggesting that they knew it was a Turkish aircraft. "We have both radar info and Syria's radio communications." There was no warning from Syria before the attack, he said. "The Syrians knew full well that it was a Turkish military plane and the nature of its mission."

Conceivably, Syria wanted Turkey to know that its decision to shoot down the jet was deliberate. An exacerbation of Turkish-Syrian tensions is in the cards. Turkey has since invoked Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's charter, which says: "The Parties [member countries] will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened." A meeting of NATO ambassadors has been scheduled for Tuesday in Brussels.

Turkey is calibrating a strong response to the Syrian act. But a challenging time lies ahead for Erdogan. First and foremost, his interventionist policy in Syria does not enjoy the support of Turkey's opposition parties.

An obscure fracas

Knowing Erdogan's ability to whip up nationalistic sentiments, the opposition parties quickly concurred that Turkey must respond to incident. But they point out that Erdogan needlessly provoked Damascus and has destroyed Turkey's friendly ties with Syria.

The leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdarglu, pointedly asked on Sunday after meeting with Erdogan: "Why have Turkey and Syria come to the brink of war?" The CHP's deputy head Faruk Logoglu, who is a distinguished former diplomat (ex-head of the Foreign Ministry and former ambassador to the US), said:
"We are very critical of the way AKP [Erdogan's Justice and Development Party] is handling the situation. There should be no outside intervention of any sort and any intervention must be mandated by a resolution of the UN Security Council. In the absence of such a resolution, any intervention would be unlawful. "
In short, the Turkish opposition will be free to dissociate from any response that Erdogan decides on, especially if things go haywire downstream.
Second, aside from an enthusiastic statement of support of Turkey and condemnation of Syria by British Foreign Secretary Hague, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have refrained from taking sides, although Davutoglu spoke to them personally. Everyone is counseling Ankara to show restraint, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Third, Article 4 of the NATO treaty stops short of the explicit mention of possible armed responses cited in Article 5. The NATO countries would know that Turkish aircraft have been repeatedly violating Syrian airspace in the recent weeks and Damascus has now retaliated.

The reaction by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was that he was "greatly worried" by the incident and would urge a "thorough investigation"; he then welcomed Turkey's "cool-headed reaction".

But the point is, even within Turkey, there is skepticism about what really happened. The veteran Turkish editor Yousuf Kanli wrote:
"Did the plane violate Syrian airspace? ... On the other hand, why was the Turkish reconnaissance plane flying so low, in an area close to a Russian base, and why did it keep on going in and out of Syrian airspace so many times in the 15-minute period before it was downed? Was it testing the air-defense capabilities of Syria (or the Russian base) before an intervention which might come later this year?" 
Not many NATO member countries would want to get involved in the obscure fracas. At best, Turkey can expect statements of solidarity, but equally, Damascus would also have estimated carefully that the probability of any concerted NATO action on the ground is low.

Fourth, the painful reality is that Turkey's most ardent allies in the present situation, who have encouraged Ankara on the path of intervention in Syria, are of absolutely no use today - Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They are nowhere in a position to engage Syria militarily. Turkey, in short, is left all by itself to hit back at Syria.

Fifth, any Turkish military steps against Syria would be a highly controversial move regionally. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari (who, interestingly, visited Moscow recently for consultations over Syria) voiced the widely held regional opinion when he warned of a "spillover the crisis into neighboring countries", including Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey itself.

Finally, the UN has announced the holding of an international conference on Syria next Saturday in Geneva. Besides, Clinton is due to visit Russia early this week and Syria is likely to figure in her talks with Lavrov. Ankara cannot afford to take precipitate steps on the eve of the conference. At any rate, Russia has warned against any foreign intervention in Syria - and that precludes any military move by Turkey.

War by other means
The Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Sunday: "Syria was merely exercising its right and sovereign duty and defense. There is no enmity between Syria and Turkey, but political tension [exists] between the two countries. What happened was an accident and not an assault as some like to say, because the plane was shot while it was in Syrian airspace and flew over Syrian territorial waters."

The taunt is a bitter pill to swallow for a sultan. Ankara now claims it has radio intercepts to show that the order to shoot down the aircraft came from Damascus knowing fully well it had a Turkish flag while on a "a routine training flight and undertaking a national radar-system test in respect of national security over recent developments on the Mediterranean coast".

Erdogan has had time before Tuesday's meeting to finesse some "vaziyeti kurtaran bahane" (which translates from Turkish as "face-saving excuse") to maintain his dignity and prestige in front of the parliament and the nation. But then, this is a shame he brought down on himself, since all protagonists would know that the Turkish jet was undertaking a risky mission off the Russian naval base of Tartus.

The influential Turkish commentator Murat Yetkin wrote on Monday,
"It is clear that the incident will result in increased pressure on Syria and its supporters, mainly Russia. But what Bashar al-Assad cares for seems to be keeping his chair and the Russian naval base in Tartus strong, whatever the cost, also knowing that neither the Turkish government, nor the opposition and people, want war."
Yetkin was sure that "Turkey will do everything to make Syria pay for the attack", but "payment doesn't mean war, there are other options".

In reality, Damascus has put a double whammy on Turkey. It not only lost a Phantom and its two pilots but is now under compulsion to take the loss calmly, exercising self-restraint.

By M K Bhadrakumar
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.


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