What is it called when two countries that share a common border exchange artillery fire? A “skirmish”? An “inevitable long-term conflict”? How about “potential war”?
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said this week that “worst-case scenarios” are now a reality as Syria’s civil war has directly affected its northern neighbor Turkey, both in terms of the sheer numbers of Syrian refugees and fire crossing the border. Tensions are mounting on both sides, as analysts have noted, but the belligerence flows from the Syrian regime.
In recent years, Turkey has been slowly — but surely — moving away from its traditional secularism to a more “moderate” Islamist government. It’s not perfect. However, in this de facto conflict with Syria, it has exercised considerable caution.
Turkey is hosting some 93,000 registered Syrian refugees, housed in 13 camps. It’s believed that 40,000 to 50,000 more refugees are undocumented, possibly renting accommodations or staying with relatives. The current situation is unsustainable; though it is clear Ankara doesn’t want a war and is doing whatever it can to deter its neighbor.
Whether the U.S. and its allies want to become further embroiled in Syria’s civil war, they may eventually find that they’re placed in a position to defend their NATO partner Turkey. In a direct warning to Syria, NATO has said it is prepared to defend. “Obviously Turkey can rely on NATO solidarity,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen said prior to a meeting with NATO defense ministers in Brussels. “We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary.”
The statement is largely symbolic, but it’s important because it serves as a warning.
Syria’s regional conflict, born out of the wider Arab Spring and with the goal of ousting President Bashar al-Assad, has claimed the lives of more than 30,000 people. Several Western journalists have been maimed or killed. Most recently, Washington Post freelance journalist and former Marine Austin Tice was kidnapped and is believed held by the Syrian government.
Syria’s 19-month conflict has the potential to reach the two-year mark because Syria’s military, police, and intelligence services are so united. Al-Assad’s regime is centrally run through an old guard put into place by his father, Hafez. It’s been weakened — but not destroyed — due in part to Saudi support for the rebels. Saudi influence, moreover, has not been widely discussed. It has the potential to further undermine the possibility of a democratic Syria. On the other side, Iran continues to provide material support to the Syrian regime, which, like Iran’s theocracy, is Shia Muslim. By contrast, the U.S. and Europe have been working to impose sanctions on the regime and to provide nonlethal support to the rebels.
This conflict isn’t going away. It’s also not easily ignored. U.S. crude prices increased this week amid fears over what could happen to oil piped to Turkey from Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, near Syria. What appeared to be a skirmish across Turkish-Syrian borders has the potential to escalate to so much more.