Why Turkey won’t go to war with Syria

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has yet to understand the new deal struck between Russia and the US.

Erdogan jet
Erdogan effectively branded Syria 'a hostile state' after it shot down a Turkish jet [Reuters]

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan never saw it coming.

He knew he was in trouble when the Pentagon leaked that the Turkish Phantom RF-4E shot down last week by Syrian anti-aircraft artillery happened off the Syrian coastline, directly contradicting Erdogan’s account, who claimed it happened in international air space.

And it got worse; Moscow, via Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, offered “objective radar data” as proof.

There was not much to do except change the subject. That’s when Ankara introduced a de facto buffer zone of four miles (6.4km) along the Syrian-Turkish border – now enforced by F-16s taking off from NATO’s Incirlik base at regular intervals.

Ankara also dispatched tanks, missile batteries and heavy artillery to the 500 mile (800km) border, right after Erdogan effectively branded Syria “a hostile state”.

What next? Shock and awe? Hold your (neo-Ottoman) horses.

Lord Balfour, I presume?

 NATO condemns downing of Turkish jet

The immediate future of Syria was designed in Geneva recently, in one more of those absurdist “international community” plays when the US, Britain, France, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Qatar and Kuwait sat down to devise a “peaceful solution” for the Syrian drama, even though most of them are reportedly weaponising the opposition to Damascus.

One would be excused to believe it was all back to the Balfour Declaration days, when foreign powers would decide the fate of a country without the merest consultation of its people, who, by the way, never asked them to do it on their behalf.

Anyway, in a nutshell: there won’t be a NATO war on Syria – at least for now. Beyond the fact that Lavrov routinely eats US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for breakfast, Russia wins – for now.

Predictably, Moscow won’t force regime change on Assad; it fears the follow-up to be the absolute collapse of Syrian state machinery, with cataclysmic consequences. Washington’s position boils down to accepting a very weak, but not necessarily out, Assad.

The problem is the interpretation of “mutual consent”, on which a “transitional government” in Syria would be based – the vague formulation that emerged in Geneva. For the Obama administration, this means Assad has to go. For Moscow – and, crucially, for Beijing – this means the transition must include Assad.

Expect major fireworks dancing around the interpretation. Because a case can be made that the new “no-fly zone” over Libya – turned by NATO into a 30,000-sortie bombing campaign – will become Syria’s “transitional government”, based on “mutual consent”.

One thing is certain: nothing happens before the US presidential election in November. This means that for the next five months or so Moscow will be trying to extract some sort of “transitional government” from the bickering Syrian players. Afterwards, all bets are off. A Washington under Mitt Romney may well order NATO to attack in early 2013.

A case can be made that a Putin-Obama or US-Russia deal may have been reached even before Geneva.

Russia has eased up on NATO in Afghanistan. Then there was the highly choreographed move of the US offering a formal apology and Pakistan duly accepting it – thus reopening NATO’s supply routes to Afghanistan.

It’s crucial to keep in mind that Pakistan is an observer and inevitable future full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – run by China and Russia, both BRICS members highly interested in seeing the US and NATO out of Afghanistan for good.  

The “price” paid by Washington is, of course, to go easy on Damascus – at least for now. There is not much Erdogan can do about it; he really was not in the loop.

Keep the division of labour intact

So here’s the perverse essence of Geneva: the (foreign) players agreed to disagree – and to hell with Syrian civilians caught in the civil war crossfire.

In the absence of a NATO attack, the question is how the Assad system may be able to contain or win what is, by all practical purposes, a foreign-sponsored civil war.

Yes, because the division of labour will remain intact. Turkey will keep offering the logistical base for mercenaries coming from “liberated” Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Lebanon. The House of Saud will keep coming up with the cash to weaponise them. And Washington, London and Paris will keep fine-tuning the tactics in what remains the long, simmering foreplay for a NATO attack on Damascus.

Even though the armed Syrian opposition does not control anything remotely significant inside Syria, expect the mercenaries reportedly weaponised by the House of Saud and Qatar to become even more ruthless. Expect the not-exactly-Free Syrian Army to keep mounting operations for months, if not years. A key point is whether enough supply lines will remain in place – if not from Jordan, certainly from Turkey and Lebanon.

Damascus may not have the power to strike the top Western actors in this drama. But it can certainly wreak havoc among the supporting actors – as in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, Turkey.

Jordan, the weak link, a wobbly regime at best, has already closed off supply lines. Hezbollah sooner or later will do something about the Lebanese routes. Erdogan sooner or later will have to get real about what was decided in Geneva.

Moreover, one can’t forget that Saudi Arabia would be willing to fight only to the last dead American; it won’t risk Saudis to fight Syrians.

As for red alerts about Saudi troops getting closer to southern Syria through Jordan, that’s a joke. The House of Saud military couldn’t even defeat the ragtag Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen.

A final juicy point. The Russian naval base at Tartus – approximately a mere 55 miles (90km) away from where the Panthom RF-4E was shot down – now has its radar on 24/7. And it takes just a single Russian warship anchored in Syrian waters to send the message; if anyone comes up with funny ideas, just look at what happened to Georgia in 2008.

Time to shuffle those cards

Erdogan has very few cards left to play, if any. Assad, in an interview with Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper, regretted “100 per cent” the downing of the RF-4E, and argued, “the plane was flying in an area previously used by Israel’s air force”.

The fact remains that impulsive Erdogan got an apology from wily Assad. By contrast, after the Mavi Marmara disaster, Erdogan didn’t even get an unpeeled banana from Israel.

 Alawite activists flee to Turkey

The real suicidal scenario would be for Erdogan to order another F4-style provocation and then declare war on Damascus on behalf of the not-exactly-Free Syrian Army. It won’t happen. Damascus has already proved it is deploying a decent air defence network.

Every self-respecting military analyst knows that war on Syria will be light years away from previous “piece of cake” Iraq and Libya operations. NATO commanders, for all their ineptitude, know they could easily collect full armouries of bloody noses.

As for the Turkish military, their supreme obsession is the Kurds in Anatolia, not Assad. They do receive some US military assistance. But what they really crave is an army of US drones to be unleashed over Anatolia.

Turkey routinely crosses into Northern Iraq targeting Kurdish PKK guerrillas accused of killing Turkish security forces.  Now, guerrillas based in Turkey are reportedly crossing the border into Syria and killing Syrian security forces, and even civilians. It would be too much to force Ankara to admit its hypocrisy.

Erdogan, anyway, should proceed with extreme caution. His rough tactics are isolating him; more than two-thirds of Turkish public opinion is against an attack on Syria.

It’s come to the point that Turkish magazine Radikal asked their readers whether Turkey should be a model for the new Middle East. Turkey used to be “the sick man of Europe”; now Turkey is “becoming the lonely man of the Middle East”, says the article.

It’s a gas, gas, gas

Most of all, Erdogan simply cannot afford to antagonise Russia. There are at least 100,000 Russians in Syria – doing everything from building dams to advising on the operation of those defence systems.

And then there’s the inescapable Pipelineistan angle. Turkey happens to be Gazprom’s second-largest customer. Erdogan can’t afford to antagonise Gazprom. The whole Turkish energy security architecture depends on gas from Russia – and Iran. Crucially, one year ago a $10bn Pipelineistan deal was clinched between Iran, Iraq and Syria for a natural gas pipeline from Iran’s giant South Pars field to Iraq, Syria and further on towards Turkey and eventually connecting to Europe.

During the past 12 months, with Syria plunging into civil war, key players stopped talking about it. Not anymore. Any self-respecting analyst in Brussels admits that the EU’s supreme paranoia is to be a hostage of Gazprom. The Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline would be essential to diversify Europe’s energy supplies away from Russia.

For the US and the EU, this is the real game, and if it takes two or more years of Assad in power, so be it. And it must be done in a way that does not fully antagonise Russia. That’s where reassurances in Geneva to Russia keeping its interests intact in a post-Assad Syria come in.

No eyebrows should be raised. This is how ultra-hardcore geopolitics is played behind closed doors. It remains to be seen whether Erdogan will get the message.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).