For Turkey, Planned U.S. Missile Strikes on Syria Not Good Enough

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From left: Syria's opposition chief Ahmad Jarba and Turkish Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu at a press conference in Istanbul.

For some American allies, such as the UK, whose parliament seemed to reject any armed involvement in Syria on Thursday, punitive airstrikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad might be too much to stomach. For others, it may be too little. As the U.S. readies to proceed with limited missile strikes against Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed over a thousand people last week, Turkey, a key regional ally and Syria’s neighbor, seems to want more than Washington is willing to give.

The Obama administration signaled Friday that any action against Syria would be brief and measured. Turkey, however, having declared it would join any international coalition against Assad, with or without U.N. backing, has made it equally clear it wants a more robust intervention. On Wednesday, according to Turkish media, Ahmet Davutoglu, the country’s Foreign Minister, counseled his US counterpart John Kerry that any action should be forceful enough to bring Assad’s regime to the negotiating table.

A Turkish foreign ministry official, speaking to TIME anonymously, fleshed out Davutoglu’s remarks. “Any intervention should be designed to clear the way for a solution,” he says, “rather than maintaining, or rather worse, aggravating the uncertainties prevalent right now.”

Since the beginning of the two-year-long civil war in Syria, Turkey, which shares a 560-mile border with its southern neighbor, has grown increasingly vulnerable to the conflict’s violent spillover. To date, almost half a million Syrians have found shelter in the country, including about 200,000 in refugee camps. Turkish soldiers manning the border have recently had to fight off thousands of heavily armed petrol smugglers near the town Reyhanli, where a car bombing earlier this year that Ankara links to Syrian intelligence agents claimed 53 lives. Further east, they have looked on helplessly as a Kurdish militia that has waged war against Turkey for the last 30 years has taken control over an area stretching from Ras al-Ayn, just south of the border in Syria, to northern Iraq.

The kind of intervention the Americans envision doesn’t address any of Turkey’s fundamental concerns about Syria’s unraveling state, says Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London. “Kurdish autonomy on the border, rising refugees, these so-called smugglers… none of that will stop, none of that gets addressed by the air strikes,” he says. “They won’t change the trajectory of the war.”

Turkish officials might be quite sober about the limited scope and impact of US-led action, says Stein, “but I assume they’re hoping it’s a slippery slope to the kind of intervention that Turkey would ultimately like to see take place, including a no-fly zone and major strikes to tilt the balance on the ground in the rebels’ favor.” Referring to the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, which forced Belgrade’s forces to withdraw from Kosovo, he says, “I think they’re hoping that this is the first of what will turn into Kosovo.”

Despite boasting the second biggest army in NATO, Turkey isn’t poised to play a leading role in the armed campaign against Syria, at least not at the outset, says Can Kasapoglu, a Research Fellow at EDAM, a think tank. Turkey can open its airspace and provide the US and allied forces access to some of its military bases and, if necessary, help them enforce a naval blockade in the eastern Mediterranean. If the campaign extends to a no-fly zone, he says, “the Air Force could be used in Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) operations, air refueling, and combat air patrol.”

The more that their country involves itself in the operations, many Turks fear, the higher the risk of Syrian retaliation. Ankara is far from invulnerable. Earlier this year, NATO stationed six Patriot batteries near the country’s border with Syria at Turkey’s behest. The batteries, manned by roughly 1,200 NATO troops, can protect up to 3.5 million people from a potential missile threat, according to NATO sources, but they cannot guarantee total protection. “No missile defense can work at 100% interception rates,” says Kasapoglu. And while failure to intercept a conventional missile “could be tolerable,” he says, the equation changes when biological and chemical warfare is brought into the picture. A WMD-tipped ballistic missile that penetrates Turkey’s defenses could spell disaster.

Until and unless the Syrian regime feels entirely cornered, however, any overt aggression against Turkey is very unlikely. “Assad has proven himself to be either preposterously stupid or not in control of his armed forces,” says Stein, but he would have to be mad to hit Turkey, a NATO member. Even if the Alliance has initially ruled out a role in a possible intervention in Syria, a major Syrian attack against Turkey could easily trigger NATO’s “mutual defense” clause. And that, says Stein, “would lead to very robust intervention by the West.”

Even as it debates the scale of its contribution, the Turkish government may run into a wall at home. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu have been bellicose, but most Turks, who are traditionally wary of military adventures abroad, remain opposed to any armed intervention in Syria. So does much of the political opposition. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) commands a majority in Parliament but any resolution authorizing Turkish involvement in Syria, if its adoption proves necessary, may yet founder. It wouldn’t be the first time. On March 1, 2003, as the US readied for war with Iraq, Turkey’s parliament voted on a motion allowing more than 60,000 American troops to operate from the country’s bases. It fell by a margin of three votes.