Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Turkey and Syria

For those who haven't been paying attention, Syria shot down a Turkish RF-4E Phantom the other day. The RF-4E is a two-seat fighter that has been converted to be an unarmed photo-recon plane, used for basically taking pictures of enemy positions and whatnot. While overflights of Syrian territory and reconnaissance has probably been happening for some time, this is the first time that Syria took action, or was able to take action against Turkey's reconaissance efforts.

While I don't know what Turkey's policy with regard to keeping an eye on the Syrians has been to this point, I would guess that they have been proactive, relying both on satellite survillence from other NATO members, as well as ground, air, and electronic surveillance. Turkey shares a lengthy border with Syria, so the events occurring there are going to be of concern to them. If nothing else, the possibility of waves of refugees spilling over into Turkey from a potential all-out civil war would create a serious headache for the Turkish government.

There is also the ongoing Kurdish question. Occupying parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, the Kurdish people have a strong nationalist streak and feel that they deserve a specific Kurdish homeland. While Iraq has granted a semi-autonomous region to the Kurds, the other three nations still essentially do not recognize a separate Kurdish identity. Turkey, in particular, has been involved with an ongoing low-intensity conflict with ethnic Kurds that doesn't show signs of abating. A collapse of the Syrian government could lead to the Syrian Kurdish minority essentially declaring regional autonomy and potentially giving support to the Kurds in Turkey, which would be an unacceptable situation to the Turkish government.

Last, Turkey is a member of NATO, and NATO has been gradually more involved in the various events related to the "Arab Spring." There have probably been behind-the-scenes talks about using Turkey as a staging area for intervention in Syria if it is decided that armed intervention is necessary and in the interests of NATO. Recon flights and other reconaissance would certainly be a prelude to that.

On paper, and in reality, military intervention in Syria by Turkey would probably be a fairly one-sided affair if it happened. Syrian's military basically a time capsule of dating to the fall of the Soviet Union, while Turkey has continually upgraded their armed forces. In addition, Turkey constantly participates in exercises with other NATO members and has experience deploying for various peacekeeping exercises and in support of other interventions. There would likely be air support from NATO nations, as well. Given that Syria is already politically divided, and the military probably is loyal to Assad for the reason of patronage (similar to Libya), there would probably be less chance of a long-term insurgency developing like with Iraq.

However, the long-term and larger effects of an intervention in Syria aren't clear. Russia has warned NATO about intervention in Syria, considering it to still be in their sphere of influence. While opinions vary on Russian willingness to respond to an intervention in Syria, or what the true Russian ability to do so is, Russia still maintains roughly a corps-sized airborne force, as well as an an air force potentially capable of projecting power into Syria, or striking targets in Turkey. Whether or not Russia would intervene in this case is an open question, but consider that Russian recently renewed arms contracts worth several billion with Syria, maintains strong ties with Syria, and is upgrading a port for Russian naval use. Remember that no one really thought that the Chinese would intervene in Korea as UN forces approached the Chinese border.

At a minimum, it could be reasonably expected that even a limited war in Syria would destabilize an already-shaky world market. Spillover into a broader conflict would probably reverse whatever progress toward a "recovery" has been made over the last few years and send Europe into a crisis. Quite a lot of trade flows through the region, including through the Suez Canal (only a few hundred miles south of Syria). While memories of the "Yellow Fleet," for example, have faded, shipping and insurance companies have been feeling financial pressure due to piracy and may decide to avoid an increasingly unstable region, between Egypt, Syria, and Libya.

While Turkey intervening in Syria isn't likely, and the outcome of an intervention, if it happened, is open to question, the point still lingers that we can't readily predict what the long-term effects will be. Things can get out of hand very easily, or there may be long-lasting effects and emergent properties that no one accounted for before things got rolling. We can only watch and wait and see if this is a flash in the pan or another crack in the wall of modern industrial civilization.

1 comment:

  1. Good analysis of the situation and the possibilities. For the sake of the humans on the ground we have to hope that there is a "peaceful" way out of this.