Turkey: Could the Turks intervene in Syria?

NATO and the US won't get embroiled in the Syrian political quagmire, but could the Turks?

Along with the likes of the Mongols, Brits and Huns, the Turks have often been regarded historically as some of the best soldiers on the planet. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the Turks forged a secular state yet even then its army usurped power internally by staging a series of coups. Today, Turkish commandos are viewed as some of the most effectively trained, and Turkey maintains the second largest ground force in NATO. After a period of friendship-forging devised by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, an entire group of neighbours have for different reasons created headaches in Ankara. 

Recently the Turks kicked out the Israeli Ambassador, argued with Iran after Turkey agreed to NATO installing anti-nuclear missiles on Turkish soil, and pursued and bombed Kurdish PKK rebels in northern Iraq. Turkey allowed the Syrian Opposition to coalesce at a conference last May at the Turkish Mediterranean resort of Antalya and since allowed them to open an Ankara office. In October Davutoğlu met with Syrian Opposition leaders in Ankara for the first time, advising them to work towards a peaceful transition to democracy in Damascus, noted Associated Press.  

Yet, Turkey has permitted rebel Syrians under Colonel Riad al-Asaad (no relative of Bashar) to train at a camp in the southern Turkish province of Hatay. And while, according to The Economist, Turkey is "neither arming nor training his men", Turkish irritatation with the continued murderous crackdown on protest inside Syria by the Ba'athist regime of Bashar al-Assad appears to be rising.

For four hundred years until 1916, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire. And while it languished in impoverished under-development, Syria was a key Turkish possession. After WWI Syria was split in two and handed to dominant France and Britain, but modern Syria achieved independence from the French in 1946. The "Dormant power revival" article in The Economist highlights Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan's dilemma when it refers to Syria's resumption of support "for the Kurdish rebels, who kill Turkish soldiers almost daily." Davutoğlu's "zero problems with neighbours" foreign policy seems to be increasingly under strain.

For years Turkey was reported to have courted Assad in the hope Syria might develop into a mirror-image secular Muslim democratic state. And for a while that policy reaped dividends, with Bashar's father Hafez al-Assad kicking out Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1998. When Hafez died in 2000 and later son Bashar took over, Turkey persisted in friendly dialogue, Bashar and Erdogan meeting periodically to discuss their 700 km shared border and improve bilateral relations. 

Turkey would always remain strategically significant, since water flows into semi-arid Syria from Turkey's Euphrates river which was dammed at Tabqa in 1968 to create Lake Assad. From Keban in the eastern Turkish province of Elâzığ, the Euphrates flows south into Iraq and Syria, supplying precious water to the entire Levant. 

Turkey's rapidly growing economic might has been a signifant contributor to Syrian GDP, with until recently 7.6% of imports arriving from Turkey. No doubt Turkey would wish to increase that percentage and the development of democratic government in Damascus might assist that ambition. Interestingly, Syria is less dependent on exports to Turkey. Two-way trade between these two neighbours has some considerable way to grow.

Turkish frustrations at the continued Syrian government suppression of its own people is mounting as fast as refugee numbers swell close to Turkey's border. Something has to give soon. And with NATO standing back, America cash-strapped and hurting from badly devised and executed recent military escapades in Iraq and Afghanistan and Russia progressively irked by erstwhile ally Syria, Turkey's moment to unilaterally intervene might be imminent.

It seems there's no political capital in Ankara for a policy involving the bolstering of efforts by Syrian defectors like Colonel Riad al-Asaad. The matter might be more effectively settled by the Turkish armed forces themselves.

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