Turkey-Syria Clashes Reflect Greater Frustration, Larger Regional Conflagration

The shell that killed five civilians on the Turkish border is not the only source of tension between that country and warring Syria — the Syrian government is also upset at Turkey for sheltering rebels. Judy Woodruff talks to Henri Barkey of Lehigh University and Hisham Melhem of al-Arabiya News about the high stakes for both.

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    Late today, the U.N. Security Council condemned Syria's shelling of Turkey in what it called the strongest terms.

    For more on this, I'm joined now by Henri Barkey, a specialist in Turkish affairs and a former State Department official in the Clinton administration. He now teaches at Lehigh University. And Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya News.

    Gentlemen, it's good to have you both with us.

    So let me start with you, Henri Barkey.

    We heard in that report an accident, a stray shell. How did events come to this?

  • HENRI BARKEY, Lehigh University:

    Well, there's a lot of fighting on the border.

    There's been shelling before. This is not the first time that shells fell on the Turkish side.

    In fact, last week, the Turks sent a protest note to the Syrians because there was a whole series of shells that fell into — on farmland. So if this had happened differently yesterday, in other words, if the shells had fallen on farmland and not killed five people, we wouldn't be essentially discussing this tonight and there wouldn't be a Security Council resolution and the Turks would not have bombed.

    So it's a little bit happenstance to some extent.


    But the tension between the two countries has been building?


    The tension has been building. The Turks are supporting the Free Syrian Army.

    They're allowing the Free Syrian Army essentially a base to operate against Syria. The Turkish government has taken a very strong rhetorical position against Bashar al-Assad and calling for him to leave and accusing him of terrible deeds.

    So, yes, there's tension. But it's not in the interest of the Syrians to provoke the Turks. The Turkish army is fairly strong, and the Syrians already are having trouble fighting the Free Syrian Army. Why bring in another enemy?


    Hisham Melhem, you see it the same way, not in the interests of one side to provoke the other?

  • HISHAM MELHEM, Al-Arabiya Television:

    Well, the Syrians initially said that we are investigating the accident.

    But obviously we don't know the exact circumstances. Logically, one would say that Assad cannot provoke the Turks, because Turkish is a much — powerful neighbor, and the Turkish army is strong, and they can really take out the Syrian army, which is already exhausted.

    At the same time, there are those who would argue that it's in the interest of Syria to force the Turks to play their hands, and even the threat of a regional conflagration could force the international powers, the Russians, the Iranians, and others, to push the Turks not to help the Syrian opposition.

    But as we speak now, we can talk about a regional conflict, albeit on a limited basis. We already know that the Iranians are sending technicians, trainers.


    You are saying it's already…


    Of course, and then we know for a fact that that Hezbollah in Lebanon is sending also trainers and people to help the Syrian army.

    And then, of course, we have the latest worrisome development, which is the influx of so-called jihadists, volunteers coming to fight the Syrian regime. So already you have a regional conflict, but it's not as high as leading to conventional warfare between the Turks and the Syrians.


    So, given all that, Henri Barkey, what's the significance of this dustup, if you will, between — five people killed, so it's serious, but what's the significance of this? Could it lead to something bigger?


    Well, it's hard to see how it will get to something bigger. It is Turkey and Syria, because there's a position in Turkey, generally an opposition in Turkey to going into Syria.

    The Turks actually want us, the United States, to establish a no-fly zone. They don't want to do it themselves. They cannot actually establish a no-fly zone. They want us…


    The Turks want this?


    They want us.

    They keep pushing us to have a no-fly zone. And we are saying, no, we don't want to do it. And it's not because of the elections. I think this administration, even if it were to win the election, it wouldn't establish a no-fly zone, because it's very difficult to establish a no-fly zone.

    But Hisham is right in the sense that there are small signs of a regional conflagration. The Kurdish problem is emerging in Syria. But the significance of this event is in the following.

    If this were to happen, let's say, two, three, four, five times again and people get killed on the Turkish side, then the Turkish government will put a lot of pressure on NATO, on the United States to act.

    And that's where the administration and NATO will find themselves in a very difficult position, because an ally is saying, look, my territory is being invaded or being attacked. Please come and help.

    Now, it's also true that the Turks are now aiding and abetting an army that is fighting the Syrian government. So it's getting very, very murky in some ways.


    So what happens if there are — Hisham Melhem, if there were several more incidents, accidents like what has happened in the last few days, what could it lead to?


    I think Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, would be forced to intervene militarily. We don't know to what extent or on what level.

    Already, the Turks lost a jet plane in June. Two pilots were killed. This is the first time we have five civilian Turks being killed. If these acts continue on the border, Erdogan will be facing a tremendous challenge from within. And then he would lose whatever credibility he has.

    Already, many people are criticizing the Turks because in the last six months, seven months, they have been huffing and puffing, saying we will not allow this to happen in Syria, we will impose a no-fly zone or we will have our own security zone on the borders, and they are crying wolf many times. And they will reach a point where Erdogan will be forced to intervene.

    Already, Turkey is housing almost 100,000 Syrian refugees. Yesterday, they invoked national security — a threat to their national security. There will be a point where Erdogan will rely on the Turkish army to engage in a military operation.


    So, if Turkey does get more involved, what does that mean with regard to NATO, with regard to the United States? Does that then compel other actors to get into this?


    Well, it makes the very hard for the administration and for NATO.

    But I will disagree with Hisham in the following sense. It would take enormous casualties for the Turks to actually intervene directly in a major way.

    They can shell. They can send even maybe a few aircraft across the border, but it's not in the interests of the Turks to get involved in a shooting war with the Syrians. It's going to cost them.

    It's going to cost them in terms of human casualties. It's going to cost them in terms of resources. It's going to make Turkey look an unstable country in terms of foreign investment. So this government, I suspect, is going to use pressure on the U.S. and NATO, rather than involving itself.


    That gets to my question just very quickly then. How does this get resolved if that's the case?


    Well, from the Turkish perspective, it's not going to be resolved as long as Bashar al-Assad is in Damascus.

    This is the same view of the Europeans and the Americans. And I think if this — the conflict continues like that, it's going to draw the neighborhood. I mean, it's inevitable. I wasn't surprised by this. Already, the war is spilling over to Lebanon, and we have seen violence taking place in Lebanon. Now it's spilling over to Turkey and Iraq.

    It is spilling over also to Iraq to a lesser extent. It is inevitable that this war is going to drag the neighbors into it. Already we have seen tension rising between the Turks and the Iranians. Turkey and Iran are competing to shape the future of Syria, just as they are competing to shape the future of Iraq.

    This conflict will continue. And unless there's an intervention to end the regime in Damascus, there will be conflagration.


    Quick final thought?


    Well, I think we all, the Turks, the Americans, the Europeans, have to adjust our policies for the future.

    Bashar al-Assad will go, but he will not go any time soon. So we need to come up with a new set of policies that first of all protects us against what will happen in Iraq. Iraq is a real next battleground. And that's what we need to watch.


    Hisham Melhem, we thank you, Henri Barkey. We thank you both.

    And, online, we assess what it would take for Syria to transition from the Assad regime to a new government.