Amid rising tension with Damascus, Turkey mobilises near border
Last week's downing of a Turkish warplane has changed the military terms of engagement with Syria.
By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye –27/06/12
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's pointed warning to Syria on Tuesday (June 26th) that the regime of Bashar al-Assad has changed the military rules of engagement by downing a Turkish warplane last week will leave no room for error for military forces on the nations' border.
Demonstrators protest Syria President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Jubar, near Damascus, on Monday (June 25th). [Reuters]
"Syrian soldiers should not feel safe anywhere near the Turkish border now that they have demonstrated they are hostile to Turkey," Dr. Joshua Walker, Transatlantic Fellow and head of the Turkey programme at the German Marshall Fund, told SES Türkiye. "It means routine mistakes will take on new significance and both sides have to be cautious to not provoke the other."
In a pointed speech before AK Party deputies and Arab diplomats, Erdogan gave Assad a clear indication of Turkey's intentions.
"Any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria by posing a security risk or danger would be considered as a threat and would be treated as a military target," Erdogan said. "We warn the Syrian regime not to make any mistakes, not to test Turkey's decisiveness and wisdom."
Turkey shares a 900-kilometer border with Syria. Damascus insists the Turkish F4 jet was shot down inside Syrian air space, while Ankara said the incident happened in international territory. Two Turkish pilots are still missing.
In the meantime, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on Monday accused Syrian forces of opening fire on a second Turkish plane during the search for the jet. "[The] attack halted once Turkey called Syrian officials," he said, without detailing whether the plane was hit.
Ankara also said that Syrian helicopters violated Turkish airspace five times recently, without any response from Turkey.
"Usually, the neighbouring countries don't shoot down each other's planes without warning, or investigations, no matter whatever the reasons of the airspace violations. That's why the countries accept the rules of engagement," veteran diplomat Murat Bilhan, who formerly headed the Strategic Research Department at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, told SES Türkiye. "That will not be the case for Syrian planes anymore, if they even mistakenly approach Turkish borders."
Since the beginning of the year there have been 114 recorded infringements of Turkish airspace, including the five by Syria, according to the official numbers.
"Obviously our Air Forces didn't shoot them all down like Syria did to us, because we can determine through the radars where they belong to. ... In a worst-case scenario, those planes can be forcefully landed and investigated, "Bilhan, currently vice chairman of Turkish Asian Centre for Strategic Studies, said. "It's the first time that Turkey considers a change in its rules of engagement against one concrete country."
"But this is not a war warning," he said. "If Syria doesn't attack us, nothing will happen to it."
Walker said the language Erdogan used in his speech "was very telling, but actions speak louder than words when it comes to Assad."
"Unless Ankara is willing to mobilise its army like it did back in the 1990s to get [PKK leader Abdullah] Ocalan kicked out, I don't expect Damascus to heed these warnings," he said.
In the meantime, Turkish media reported that the military mobilised large numbers of reinforcements from the country's eastern provinces to the Syrian border on Tuesday night, but there is no official confirmation of it.
Mehmet Sandir, a former chairman of the Turkey-Syria Friendship Group in parliament, currently a deputy-chairman of the far right National Movement Party, urged the government to "make sure that all the roads are being used before drawing the country to war with Syria."
"Everyone in Turkey is sad and angry at Syria because of what they did. Our politicians are together with the government when it comes to such sensitive topics that matter to national security," he told SES Türkiye.