Could Turkey Beat Syria?

Ankara's hard-power limitations are becoming more evident as clashes with Damascus intensify.

As the first news broke last week that a second Syrian artillery shell had struck Akcakale and killed five civilians, Turkey had already begun taking decisive action. Turkey immediately returned fire, and the following day, parliament approved the prime minister’s request to conduct cross-border military operations. The armed forces have since responded to every errant Syrian artillery strike by shelling military targets inside Syria. Having met both the shooting down of a Turkish F-4 and the first artillery shell fired at Turkey with a mix of stern words and troop deployments on the border, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government determined that this time Syria had gone too far. Or—to crib an old adage—Assad’s army had committed its third strike.

If military action seemed a natural response, the manner in which Turkey retaliated proved telling. In response to a Syrian artillery shell, Turkey fired numerous rounds of artillery back, claiming to have used radar to hit the source of the deadly Syrian shell. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed that the strikes were not acts of warfare; they were merely intended to reestablish deterrence. In words and actions, it would seem, proportionality inspired Turkey’s underlying military approach.

Just-war theorist Michael Walzer long has argued that proportionality works to counteract the aims—and not just the actions—of an opposing hostile force. Yet Turkey’s proportional response may stem less from high-mindedness and more from a startlingly limited array of options. Turkey’s intelligence-collection capabilities are limited, making target selection difficult and the possibility of air strikes remote. While it could have sent military aircraft to strike Syrian sites, Syria’s capable air defenses complicated the decision. Turkey remembers very well what Syrian air defenses can do to a Turkish fighter jet, and the potential for casualties factored into Turkey’s response.

Erdogan and other AKP officials have periodically floated a buffer zone, and in theory, Turkey might have taken advantage of this opportunity to follow through on its oft-repeated threat. Turkey could have argued it needed to invade to push Syrian artillery out of range of Turkish cities and villages. However, deploying ground forces over five civilian deaths would have thrust Turkey even deeper into the Syrian conflict and risked moving too far out in front of its Western and Arab allies. The Erdogan government alone simply could not risk igniting full-scale conflict with Syria, nor could it risk being reined in by the intervention-wary members of NATO.

The Turkish response likely will continue to be tit-for-tat artillery strikes alongside interventionist rhetoric—feinting to help reestablish deterrence. The response fits neatly into a narrative of proportionality and helps assuage domestic frustration with the AKP’s handling of the crisis. Turkey appears intent on managing tensions with Syria and preventing them from dragging Turkey into Syria’s internal conflict. Thus, Turkey may have wisely cloaked its narrow retaliatory options in the language of proportionality.

Though the threat of escalation remains remote and the government seems committed to avoiding war, Turkey still faces an impossible situation: its involvement in the Syrian conflict deepens as its policy options fail to broaden. In part, this reflects forces outside Turkey’s control. Within NATO, Turkey invoked Article IV, and the ambassadors released a joint statement condemning Syrian aggression. However, the alliance has shown little appetite for intervention, and Turkey has refrained from invoking Article V, which would obligate NATO to aid in Turkey’s defense, though not necessarily result in a NATO decision to use military force. The United States, for its part, has refused direct Turkish appeals to support the Syrian conflict militarily.

However, Turkey’s precarious situation stems in part from circumstances of its own making. Caught up in its growing regional stature and increasingly fond of liberal internationalism’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, the AKP government miscalculated deeply in threatening independent action in Syria earlier this year. Such bluster without the considerable tools necessary to carry out its threats constituted a major error in the AKP government’s foreign policy. Turkey’s wisely tempered response to Syria’s brazen downing of the Turkish F-4 merely accentuated the incongruity of its threats and capabilities. Thus, when Syria struck again and killed civilians, Turkey’s unexecuted threats necessitated a response—if only to maintain a shred of credibility.

Ankara’s options were limited from the outset, but breakdowns in relations with regional neighbors have exacerbated the problem. Deteriorated relations with Israel—a major and motivated seller of advanced arms—have hampered the Turkish military’s modernization efforts. If Ankara continues pursuing its liberal R2P policy, rapprochement with its former military partner would help Turkey transition from vision to action. But absent significant technological upgrades, Turkey’s ability to achieve its political goals through the use of force remains limited. Israel fashioned Turkey with advanced avionics for its warplanes and drone technology (Turkey already owns six Israeli-made Herons), and the two collaborated closely on intelligence sharing.

Since the Mavi Marmara incident in which Israeli forces clashed with Turkish civilians—killing nine—aboard a ship attempting to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, Turkey has downgraded relations, primarily over Israel’s unwillingness to apologize. The AKP government has at times gone out of its way to remind Israel that frosty relations have costs, ensuring Israel’s absence from Chicago’s NATO summit and demanding that the early warning radar system on Turkish soil supply no intelligence outside the NATO alliance. Yet the costs to Turkey have mounted as well. Without access to Israeli military technology, Turkey relies even more heavily on the United States, which contributed minimally in the latest flare-up between Turkey and Syria.

The lack of military systems needed to carry out Turkey’s numerous threats has undermined Ankara’s attempts at coercing Assad to make concessions. While military confrontation was always unlikely, Assad has appeared unconcerned with Turkish threats on numerous occasions. Damascus quietly dismissed Turkey’s loud proclamations on possible unilateral intervention—eroding the threat of credible action and undermining Ankara’s overall policy objectives. The shelling, therefore, should not be viewed as the precursor to war but as Turkey enacting the most limited means of reprisal.

Recent months have underscored a long-standing problem for Turkey: it remains reliant on multilateral action and on U.S. assistance to carry out military operations. While Turkey’s ability to carry out sustained air operations will remain limited for some time, it has worked to develop independent capability to carry out quick, retaliatory strikes against well-defended targets. The government has focused these efforts on purchasing front-line fighter aircraft from the United States and drones from the United States and Israel, while concurrently developing a more capable domestic arms industry. Yet U.S. reluctance to sell Turkey armed drones, the ongoing diplomatic stalemate with Jerusalem and the slow pace of procurement have stymied Turkey’s progress.

In the coming years, the pace and scope of Turkey’s arms purchases will indicate what lessons the AKP government learned from its experience in Syria. Will Ankara continue its slow military-modernization reforms, or will the current crisis prompt the Turkish armed forces to expedite purchase of weapons systems coveted for nearly a decade? Conversely, will the limits of military solutions prompt the government to tack away from its liberal-internationalist, R2P-tinged rhetoric? The answers to these questions will reveal how Turkey views its future role in the region.

Aaron Stein is a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London. You can follow him on Twitter at @aaronstein1. Dov Friedman is a research associate in foreign policy at the SETA foundation in Ankara. You can follow him on Twitter at @DovSFriedman.