BY JUSTIN VELA from Istunbul
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan
On June 22, a stricken Turkish RF-4 Phantom reconnaissance aircraft splashed down in the Mediterranean, brought down by anti-aircraft fire from the Syrian military. The pilots have yet to be located, and are most likely dead. The incident has deepened the rift between Turkey and Syria, former allies whose partnership deteriorated along with President Bashar al-Assad's brutal 15-month crackdown on his own people. Although this incident alone will not push Turkey into direct military confrontation with the Syrian regime, it has put the country in a position where one more incident will force it to, in the words of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, "teach those who dare to test the limits of its might."
Beyond the basic fact of a downed Turkish jet, Ankara and Damascus disagree over the essential details that led to the incident. Turkey insists that the plane was in international airspace when it was fired upon and had only crossed into Syrian airspace briefly, an event that President Abdullah Gul described as "routine." The Syrian regime, meanwhile, insists the Phantom was shot down well within Syrian territory -- a claim that backs up the regime's claim that the uprising, which the U.N. estimates has left more than 10,000 dead, is being guided by foreign powers.
Erdogan responded with typical anger over yet another Syrian provocation. In a June 26 address to a meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara that was attended by Arab diplomats, he announced that any Syrian forces approaching the countries' 565-mile border would be considered a threat and that any infringement of the border would be met with force. The Syrian regime presented a "clear and present danger," Erdogan said.
Meanwhile, Erdogan's top aides publicly pushed the message that the rules of the game had changed. Ibrahim Kalin, one of the premier's top foreign-policy advisors, expanded on the statement on Twitter: "The rules of engagement for the Turkish armed forces have been changed and expanded," he wrote. "Any military element approaching Turkish borders from the Syrian side will be considered a direct military threat."
A Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, backed up this newly aggressive rhetoric. With the continued bloodshed in Syria and, now the shooting down of the Turkish Phantom, Ankara is no longer playing "Mr. Nice Guy," the official said.
Erdogan's words immediately raised the question of whether a de facto safe zone -- a policy option long broached as one way Turkey could hasten the Assad regime's demise -- was being created to aid opposition forces, yet neither the prime minister nor his advisors specified what "approaching Turkish borders" meant.
Turkey's understanding of how the incident played out has its increased outrage at Assad. The Turkish official told me that the pilots accidently entered Syrian airspace for five minutes, most likely miscalculating their flight path by incorrectly identifying a pair of mountain ridges toward which they were supposed to fly. They were informed of their mistake by Turkish radar station operators and returned to Turkish airspace. The pilots were then asked to correctly repeat their maneuver, which was meant to test Turkey's domestic radar capabilities, the official said. They returned to international airspace, looping around and flying back toward Turkey, parallel to the Syrian coastline, when they were shot down near the Syrian city of Lattakia, according to the official.
Turkey intercepted the Syrian radio communications during the incident. There was "no panic" in the voices of Syrian forces, the Turkish official said. It appeared they had been previously instructed to take such actions and proved themselves aware it was a Turkish aircraft, referring to it as the "neighbors'" plane.
There is no denying that Turkey has emerged as a regional hub of anti-Assad activity in the Middle East. In the past year, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) has established an office in Istanbul, with a section dedicated to military coordination. The nominal leadership of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), along with an estimated 33,000 Syrians who fled the spiraling violence inside their country, are based in 10 Turkish camps in the border region. The U.S. State Department has also established an office in Istanbul to help train activists and provide non-lethal equipment to the opposition.
In the past weeks, reports have also claimed that Turkey's National Security Organization (MIT), its intelligence agency, has transported multiple shipments of weapons to rebels along the border. Turkey's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Selcuk Unal denied the claims, but one Syrian activist involved in transferring the new weapons from MIT to the rebels along the Syrian-Turkish border confirmed the shipments. "For myself, it was not my aim," said the activist, who had previously told me he preferred nonviolent measures to bring down the Assad regime. "But it's generally what everyone wants. It's sort of a victory."
Turkey is arguably doing more than any other country to help the Syrian guerrillas. But if Erdogan wants to convince the world that now he really means business, he's going to have to overcome skepticism from Syrian rebels themselves -- not to mention his domestic political opponents.
Abo Nidal, a 39-year-old FSA fighter, is one such skeptic. I first met him last December on a muddy hilltop in the Syrian village of Ain al-Baida. His FSA unit had raised the Turkish flag next to the green, white, and black standard of the Syrian opposition -- but now he didn't sound sure that Erdogan would match his actions to his words.
"With all due respect for Mr. Erdogan, the Syrian Army has more than several times crossed the border with helicopters and shooting. They shot a Turkish police station, they shot it from a distance," he said. "If Erdogan will help us, all we need is anti-aircraft weapons and anti-tanks weapons. We will respond and we will revenge this airplane."
Abo Nidal said that since joining the FSA he had fought only with a Kalashnikov. However, his unit had recently received rocket-propelled grenade launchers from the FSA, he said.
Mahmoud Mosa, a Syrian activist from the northern Syrian town of Bdama, echoed the lukewarm response to Erdogan's speech: "We have heard stronger threats to Syria from Erdogan before. We know that the Syrian forces are less than 300 meters from the Turkish borders in Ain al-Baida. We need deeds, not words."
The polls are also against Erdogan if he pushes for a military confrontation with Syria. According to a recent survey from the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), a Turkish think tank, 56.2 percent of respondents oppose an intervention in Syria while 40 percent say they do not support any diplomatic or military intervention. Just over 11 percent would like to see Turkey invade Syria. And only 7.9 percent of respondents support arming the FSA.
Faruk Logoglu, the deputy chairman in charge of foreign relations for the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), has signaled that he would oppose more aggressive action against the Assad regime. "The Turkish government has taken sides in this crisis since the very beginning," he told me. Instead of engaging with the Assad regime and the opposition on equal footing, he said, the AKP had simply chosen the opposition as a favorite.
While Logoglu condemned the violence in Syria, which he described as mostly being carried out by regime forces, he faulted Erdogan for "not listen[ing] to the full spectrum of voices" in Turkey. He also implied Erdogan was positioning himself as a Sunni standard-bearer for Western efforts to roll back Shiite Iran's influence in the Middle East.
"I am not pointing the finger at Mr. Erdogan and saying he is crusading for the Sunni leadership in the region," he said. "But most of his actions add up to such quote-unquote accusations or allegations, as you like."
The Turkish government's conditions for unilateral intervention in Syria have also yet to be met. Since Syrian refugees began fleeing into southern Turkey, Turkish officials have has made clear that there are two possible scenarios in which they'd ponder military action: First, if there were a mass influx of thousands of refugees that threatened to overwhelm Turkey's capabilities. The second scenario is if there were a large-scale massacre of defenseless civilians by pro-Assad military forces in the border area.
Yet even more important than the change in rules of engagement, the jet incident has confirmed Ankara's belief that Assad is rapidly losing control of the country. "It's a matter of time," the Turkish official said. "This guy will go."
On that point, at least, Syria's rebel fighters are inclined to agree. "He is losing his believers and the people who trust him more and more," Abo Nidal said. "There are defections every day. We think that is why they shot the Turkish plane."
Whether Ankara is prepared to give the Assad regime a final push remains to be seen, however. Asked if Erdogan's warning the Syrian military away from the border was creating a de facto buffer zone, the Turkish official demurred. "As a responsible government we had to think of everything," he said. "But frankly we haven't decided on anything yet."
-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 27/06/2012
-Justin Vela is an Istanbul-based journalist