Turkey’s Thanksgiving Bid for Air Defense

NATO’s only Middle Eastern Member Readies its Borders for Conflict

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Turkey put in a formal request to NATO for Patriot missiles defense systems on November 21, in order to strengthen its borders against possible airborne threats—like ballistic missiles carrying chemical warheads—from neighboring Syria. The request, which was condemned by Syria, Russia, and Iran as an intentional escalation of regional tensions, will be addressed by NATO in Brussels early this week. The request for missile defense systems is the third significant move towards conflict between Syria and Turkey since a Turkish training jet was shot down by Syrian Army forces in July. With thousands of Turkish troops now stationed along the country’s 565-mile border with Syria, hundreds of refugees flowing in daily as air strikes repeatedly target civilian areas, Kurdish nationalists continuing to develop plans for an autonomous Kurdistan, and a steadily inflating security vacuum in Syria’s provinces, Ankara’s patience with its southern neighbor is wearing thin. A look at the history—distant and recent—of Syrian-Turkish relations may give us a better understanding of just how likely Turkish military intervention in Syria could be.



Modern rifts in the Syria-Turkey relationship are still somewhat influenced by events dating back to the Middle Ages. Turks and Syrians alike still remember when Sultan Selim I defeated the Mamluk armies and turned Syria’s modern territories into a province of the vast Ottoman Empire. When the empire dissolved and Syria was transformed into a French mandate alongside neighboring Lebanon, the respite from four centuries of Turkish control was only short-lived. In 1938, with the allowance of the French, Turkish troops marched into the Syrian territory of what is today Turkey’s Hatay province. President Atatürk claimed that the region was traditionally part of the Turkish homeland, and used his armies to forcefully expel most Alawi Arabs and Armenians from the region while simultaneously flooding it with tens of thousands of Turks. Newly filled with Turkish residents and absent of the majority of its Arab citizens, Hatay quickly declared itself part of Turkey after a hastily implemented referendum. Even today, bitter Syrians still refer to Turkey’s Hatay province as part of their own territory, and many Syrian government-issue maps include the area within Syria’s borders.

Hatay_in_Turkey                                                           Source: Wikipedia



Since the 1970s, the Turkish government has been developing and intermittently implementing the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), a plan to dam the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to irrigate and agriculturalize Turkey’s arid and poor southeastern region. The plan, expected to raise income levels and living conditions in the area, would redirect large amounts of valuable water from the two rivers into central Turkey, effectively limiting the flow of water into Syria. It is estimated that, should the project be completed to its fullest intended extent, Syrian access to the water of the centrally-located Euphrates would be cut by as much as 40%.  The GAP project continues to be a point of contention in Turkey-Syria relations today.



Remnants of Cold War politics have driven a much more controversial wedge between Ankara and Damascus: Kurdish nationalist movements, particularly the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Founded in 1978 as a Marxist political group espousing Kurdish nationalism and seeking to create an autonomous Kurdish homeland within Turkey, the PKK morphed into a paramilitary organization during Turkey’s torturous and unstable decades of military coups. The PKK has fought a long, bloody, and continuous conflict with the Turkish military ever since. As Turkey was a crucial NATO member and one of the region’s primary bulwarks against the spread of communism during the Cold War, the Soviet Union and its close allies in Syria’s Ba’athist government sought to undermine Turkey by supporting and arming the PKK. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Syria recognized that it could still use the PKK to gain leverage in bilateral disputes with Turkey (see Hatay Province and Water Resources), and continued to support the group. When Turkey threatened in 1998 to invade Syria over the increasingly troublesome PKK issue, the Syrian government eased tensions by expelling PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan from the country. Though this act significantly improved relations between Damascus and Ankara, the July 2012 withdrawal of Syrian forces from “Syrian Kurdistan” and suspicions of Damascus’ collaboration with PKK-affiliate PYD has again raised the hackles of Turkish officials.



Nearly 120,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey’s southern provinces, a figure well over Turkey’s previously stated “psychological limit” of 100,000. The flow of civilians escaping the war in Syria shows no sign of abating. Turkey has closed several border crossings to stem the tide, leaving thousands of Syrians stranded on the border for weeks on end, defenseless against Syrian government air strikes. There are now some 18 refugee camps inside Turkey, with others under construction throughout the country’s southeast. The majority of Syrian refugees inside Turkey are sheltered, somewhat ironically, in Hatay province.

syrian-refugee-camps-8                                              Source: PublicIntelligence.net                                  Figures from September 27, 2012



Syria has thrice tempted Turkish intervention over the past four months. In July, Syrian forces shot down a Turkish trainer jet over what it claimed was Syrian airspace, killing the jet’s two pilots. The Assad regime promptly apologized for the dispute. Only three months later, the Turkish air force grounded a Syrian Airlines flight bound for Damascus from Moscow, suspecting that the civilian airliner was carrying Russian-made military goods for Syria’s armed forces. Upon inspection of the plane, Turkish officials found what they deemed to be missile parts, prompting Prime Minister Erdogan to demand the barring of Syrian civilian flights over Turkish airspace.

Throughout early October, several mortar shells—presumably fired by Syrian Army forces at rebel positions near the Turkish border—exploded within Turkey, killing five people and injuring several others. Turkish artillery units responded promptly by shelling Syrian artillery emplacements, killing three Syrian Army soldiers. A short time later, Turkish parliament authorized the use of ground forces inside Syria should Turkey deem further cross-border incursions as a threat to its civilians or sovereignty. Thousands of Turkish soldiers and armored vehicles have now been relocated along the Syrian border.



CIA sources estimate that there are roughly 40 chemical weapons sites within Syria. Some of these sites are located in particularly volatile areas, and the strong and influential Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah—a longtime ally of the Assad regime and staunch foe of Israel and the West—has established small training camps in the vicinity of some of these sites. Syria is not a party to the international Chemical Weapons Convention, and until July of this year completely denied that it possessed any such weapons. The Assad regime has now threatened to use its chemical weapons stockpiles if the international community intervenes militarily in the country. This has raised fears worldwide that, if backed into a corner by rebel forces, the regime may decide to use chemical weapons internally.

Assad’s cavalier attitude regarding chemical weapons is of particular concern to Syria’s neighbors, especially Israel and Turkey. Syria is in possession of Soviet-made SCUD-C and SCUD-D missiles capable of carrying chemical weapons payloads well into both of these countries. Should such delivery systems and weapons stores fall into the hands of Hezbollah or PKK affiliates inside Syria’s inflating security vacuum, an international crisis could quickly unravel. Hence, Turkey has asked NATO for the new Patriot PAC-3 SAM systems to be placed in strategic positions along its southern provinces. Turkish military sources have stated that the new PAC-3 Patriots, smaller and more maneuverable weapons than their predecessors, will be used solely for defense against incoming ballistic missiles. However, Western sources speculate that the presence of SAM systems on Turkey’s border with Syria may, at the very least, intimidate Syrian pilots from conducting bombing missions against civilians and rebel outposts close to the frontier. PAC-3 missiles can be configured to target ballistic missiles or aircraft. They have a range of out to 160km (~100mi), which, if placed as expected in Turkey’s southern Hatay, Gaziantep, and Sanliurfa provinces, is great enough to reach well into Syria’s rebel-controlled areas. This would allow for a simple tactical transition to target Syrian military aircraft should Turkey’s strategy shift from defense to offense. Employed as an air cover for FSA-held positions on the ground along Turkey’s border—particularly in areas of heavy fighting and refugee movement like Idlib and Aleppo—these missiles would act as the most crucial tool for forming a universal safe-zone inside Syria.


20121013_wom934                                          Rebel activity inside Syria.                                  Source: The Economist, October 8th, 2012



Indeed, Turkey is already performing numerous beneficial roles—from accommodating refugees, to harboring FSA commanders and training camps, to funneling weapons into the hands of the rebel forces—to undermine the Assad regime and support Syrian citizens and fighters alike. But although international pressure to establish a safe zone inside Syria grows with each new regime attack on civilians, and although Assad’s forces have already exhibited disregard for Turkish territorial sovereignty, it is not yet in Turkey’s national interest to get involved militarily inside Syria. Most experts do not expect this to change unless the conflict depreciates in a manner that threatens Turkish security. The refugee crisis itself is not a threat, but rather a strain on Turkey’s infrastructure, and is therefore not likely to prompt military incursions inside Syria. However, the growing Kurdish nationalist element of the conflict has not been lost on Ankara. An autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Syria would give Turkey’s guerilla enemies in the PKK room to organize and operate politically and militarily in already-PYD/PKK controlled areas along the border, such as Ayn al-Arab and Afrin. Connected to the Nur Mountains, a high mountain range well known by PKK operatives, towns like Afrin give PKK fighters a direct link into central Turkey.

As strong as Turkish interest in curbing armed Kurdish nationalist influence may be, however, the military option to combating Kurds in Syria is not an attractive one. PKK hatred for Turkey, combined with their deep knowledge of the mountainous terrain of Turkey’s south-central border with Syria, could turn a Turkish military invasion into what Joshua Landis calls “Turkey’s Vietnam.”

So how likely and feasible is a Turkish military intervention? Using Patriot systems to create a safe airspace inside Syria is not outside the realm of possibility. With clear skies, the FSA could then establish universal safe zones on the ground, eliminating or seriously reducing the strain of refugees on Turkish soil. But a Turkish ground incursion into Syrian territory for that purpose or others does not seem likely.

For more in-depth information about a potential Turkey-Syria conflict, check out these articles:

Is a Turkey-Syria Conflict Inevitable? 

Syria and Turkey: The PKK Dimension  

The Turkey-Syria Military Balance 


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