The search and rescue effort is under way. The fact that Turkish and Syrian forces are cooperating in this search and rescue effort is very telling for a couple of reasons. First, it shows that Damascus wants to de-escalate the tension with Ankara. Second, it also shows that Turkey is equally willing to show flexibility, particularly if the two Turkish pilots are found by Syria and there is a need to negotiate for their return. Official announcements from both President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have also been quite cautious in their attempt to calm Turkish public opinion.
All this measured wording from the Turkish side suggests that Ankara will be ready to accept a Syrian apology. Ironically, this crisis may even lead to an interesting opportunity for the restoration of some sense of a diplomatic dialogue between Ankara and Damascus after last month’s decision, when Turkey joined the United States and European countries in expelling Syrian diplomats in response to evidence that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had massacred civilians in western Syria. If the incident took place in Syrian airspace, Damascus will be able to point out that its action was not an act of aggression against Turkey. In any case, the Turkish side has not yet concluded that the Syrian action was provocative. Ankara will not have much of a case in terms of calling on NATO for intervention based on the principle of collective defense in Article 5. At the end of the day, it would be premature to expect a major escalation of this crisis towards further military confrontation between Turkey and Syria. It is well known that Prime Minister Erdoğan is one of the most strident critics of the Syrian regime. But it has also become clear that there is a wide gap between Turkish discourse and action when it comes to Syria. What is clear is that Turkey will do its best to avoid taking unilateral military action.
As I previously argued in this column, the main variable that will determine the Turkish course of action is the number of Syrian refugees. As of last week, this number was around 32,000. This is not a small number but it is well short of the level Turkey had to deal with in 1991 when Saddam Hussein’s forces attacked the Kurds in northern Iraq. The number of Kurdish refugees amassed at the Turkish border was around half a million in 1991. Unless the number of Syrian refugees increases from the current 32,000 to at least 100,000 in the next few months, there will be no willingness in Ankara to establish a buffer zone. Let’s not forget that Turkey’s border with Syria is around 900 kilometers and that establishing a buffer zone in Syria will require a substantial military force and potential confrontation with the Syrian army.
Two additional reasons why Turkey will be reluctant to get involved in Syria militarily are America’s own lack of appetite for a confrontation with Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) factor, or to be more precise, the PKK card held by the Assad regime. As is well known, the United States is now in election season and the last thing the Obama administration wants is another American engagement in the Middle East that may require US boots on the ground. Washington also knows that any confrontation with Syria will indirectly involve a confrontation with Iran. Such dynamics would surely drive oil prices up. Needless to say, at a time when Obama is already dealing with high unemployment, a European economic crisis and a weak domestic recovery at home, a war with Syria and a spike in oil prices would be political suicide.
As far as the PKK factor is concerned, the recent Dağlıca incident already showed that there may be a Syrian Kurdish dimension in the new wave of attacks against Turkish soldiers. A military confrontation between Turkey and Syria will allow Damascus to play the PKK card much more openly and effectively against Turkey. Under such circumstances, it is only normal that Turkey would think twice before escalating the current crisis. This is why the short answer to the question of what is next between Syria and Turkey is “more of the same.”