Yesterday’s Syrian shelling of the Turkish town of Akçakale, which killed five civilians, is certainly a cause for concern. On Twitter many were asking whether Turkey was about to commit military action in response. Close Turkey-watchers noted that Turkey’s military capabilities were more limited than presumed, that the logistical issues were very complicated, that political will and public support was lacking, and that there was no good reason—from Ankara’s perspective—to bog itself down in a drawn-out conflict and occupation in a country tearing itself apart through civil war. That Turkey has been trying to seal the border, including clamping down on Syrian refugee camps in the country, is further evidence of this.
A Turkish response was practically necessary, though, after the shooting down of its military planes and other provocations across the border. It came in the form of artillery shelling of Syrian targets.
But although the Turkish parliament has passed a resolution authorizing a one-year measure allowing the government to send the Turkish Armed Forces into “foreign countries” [i.e., not Syria specifically] if deemed necessary, and although Turkey asked NATO to convene an urgent meeting and demanded UN Security Council action, this is not the first step to an invasion or large-scale attack.
Michael Koplow effectively demonstrates why no-one—Turkey, NATO, or Syria—wants another, bigger war right now. Turkey, he continues, is simply stuck in a “lose-lose situation” regarding Syria—there are no good answers to the problems Syria poses for Turkey’s regional policy and its concern for Syrian civilians.
I would only add to his list that Turkey has many other concerns it is trying to balance out, including the simmering dispute with Israel, growing tensions with Iran, hints of domestic discontent with the ruling AKP government, possible internal competition between two of the AKP’s leaders (Abdullah Gül and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), signs of emerging problems in the Turkish economy, the Arab Awakening, and an overall uncertainty about how to respond to regional changes and developments and reorient Turkish foreign policy.
A war with Syria, particularly one in which there is no clear objective, a real uncertainty as to the likely outcome, and no specific exit strategy, would throw all of these issues into further confusion and exacerbate the difficulties of constructing a new Middle East policy, one in which Turkey plays a leadership role that is respected by the new Arab governments.
Turkey’s shelling of Syria was a very flexible, limited, and safe military response that served as an indication of Turkish anger, capability, and willingness should it be pushed too far by Syria. The parliamentary resolution demonstrated political resolve. My guess is that Ankara is hoping this will be enough for quite a while.