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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Turkey, Syria escalate their war of words

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, sits in the cockpit of Turkey's first locally produced military training plane, unveiled during a ceremony outside Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Photo: AP Photo

On Friday, Syria shot down a Turkish military jet. While accounts vary, it seems an unarmed Turkish military jet was flying off the coast of Syria, probably in international waters, when Syrian air defenses fired at the aircraft. The plane eventually crashed just off the coast of Syria, near the coastal town of Latakia.

In the aftermath of that crash, Turkey has taken to claiming the incident is an attack not just on Turkey but also on the whole of NATO. It is a gambit Ankara has been pushing for months, trying to get European and American participation in Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s push to confront Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad by claiming border incidents require a NATO-wide response.

NATO seems reluctant to invoke Article 5, the collective defense provision of the NATO treaty. The North Atlantic Council agreed to meet under what’s known as an Article 4 Consultation, which says, “the Parties will consult whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” The NAC condemned the shooting incident but stopped short of invoking Article 5.

One of the challenges with Turkey using such an isolated incident to build its case for intervention – the shooting of a military plane is rarely enough to bring two countries to war – is that it remains unclear what happened. While Turkey claims the aircraft was in international airspace, they also concede that it “briefly” crossed into Syrian airspace.

Syria may have fired on the plane after it left their airspace, too. But officials privately seem concerned about the Turkish aircraft’s mission – it was outfitted for surveillance, and they wonder why an unarmed plane was flying so close to the Syrian cost. Considering the extremely bellicose tone Ankara has taken toward Damascus the last year or so, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Syria responded quickly and harshly to such a minor infraction.

None of that excuses Syria shooting down an unarmed aircraft, but that might explain it. Turkey and Syria seem to be drifting toward war, and a lot of Prime Minister’s Erdogan rhetoric is probably aimed at creating the political space for Turkey to function should open combat start up.

In public, Turkey has taken NATO’s condemnation of the incident as a good excuse to further step up its anti-Syria rhetoric, warning that any Syrian troops approaching the Turkish border will be fired upon. In all likelihood Erdogan wants to carve out a de facto safe zone near the Turkish border, but extending it into Syrian territory seems like a recipe for war: Syrian forces will almost certainly trip over whatever imaginary line gets set up, and Turkish forces will claim they’re justified by self-defense in responding with force.

The Turkish military certainly isn’t afraid of violating other people’s sovereignty when it feels the need. In the last week the Turkish military has launched multiple strikes into Northern Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a terror group. According to the U.S. State Department, Turkish counterstrikes have killed dozens of civilians, and the death toll has more than doubled since 2010. That wasn’t the first time Turkey had bombed Iraq: in 2008 they launched a full-scale invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan in an attempt to get the PKK. Iraqi-Kurdish politicians protested, and eventually the Turks left.

Much of Turkey’s increasingly bellicose stance toward Syria and Kurdish terrorism can be attributed, in part, to its desire to become a major force in global politics. Previously, Turkey has aspired to a “zero problem” foreign policy, in which they are at peace with their neighbors. Turkey also aspires to act as the linchpin between Europe and Asia, and thus become an influential world power.

A violent Syria along Turkey’s border gets in the way of such lofty goals – as do Kurdish terrorists. Though tense for many years, Turkish-Syrian relations enjoyed a renaissance during the aughts, which culminated in joint military exercises in early 2009 and the signing of a cooperative defense industry pact.

Over the course of the Syrian uprising in 2011, though, Turkey became increasingly frustrated with the conduct of Bashar al-Assad’s forces. In August, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited Damascus and proceeded to call the conduct of the Syrian regime “unacceptable.” In November, Turkey suspended all trade contact between the two countries, effectively ending its détente with Syria.

In short, Turkey has run out of patience over the Syrian civil war, and has done almost all it can short of military action to bring the fighting to a close. While it remains unwise to involve NATO in a response, Turkey is certainly within its rights to want to prevent fighting next door from adve butrsely affecting the country.

Even intervening directly in Syria is not without precedent, but Turkey should exercise caution. Dragging NATO into a conflict with Syria might not safeguard Turkish interests. And a Turkish-Syrian war could have resounding regional implications far beyond the plight of massacred Syrian civilians.

The shooting of an unarmed airplane is always a tragedy. But sadly, when it comes to Syria, tragedy seems to be par for the course.