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Itching for a war

Print edition : Jul 27, 2012 T+T-
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He said his country was changing the rules of engagement with Syria.-AP

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He said his country was changing the rules of engagement with Syria.-AP

The relations between Turkey and Syria worsen as Turkey vows to retaliate for the downing of its fighter jet.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared in the last week of June that Syria was now in a state of war. He was speaking after the shooting down of a Turkish military jet that had entered Syrian airspace. Syria said that it had responded to a gross violation of its territory. The wreckage of the Phantom F-4 fighter was found in Syrian waters with telltale signs that it was shot down by an anti-aircraft gun. Anti-aircraft guns have a range of around two kilometres.

Turkish officials, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have admitted that the plane did stray briefly into Syrian airspace. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu confirmed that the downed jet was on a radar testing mission. Such tests help in providing information about the position of anti-aircraft guns and ground-to-air defences. The relations between Turkey and Syria have been tense since the uprising began.

Syria had another important reason for being extra-sensitive about unidentified aircraft straying into its airspace. Five years ago, Israeli aircraft had flown over Turkish territory and bombed a military facility in the Syrian Desert. Israel claimed that the site was the location of a secret nuclear weapons reactor being built by Syria. In 2006, four Israeli jets had flown over the residence of the Syrian President prior to an Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Syria has beefed up its defences against aggression from the air. The downing of the Turkish fighter jet is a warning that Syria has acquired a sophisticated defence mechanism against potential enemies.

If the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) launches an attack on Syria, it will not be like its military adventure in Libya. That may be one of the reasons why the West is trying a different model of intervention in Syria. The intervention could be through the auspices of Turkey and bolstered by the petrodollars from client monarchies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Al Sauds recently announced that they would pay the salaries of the rebel Free Syrian Army propped up by Turkey and the West, with the approval of the Barack Obama administration. Most of the casualties that have occurred after the six-point Kofi Annan Peace Plan for Syria was put in motion in February have been Syrian armymen. In the last week of June, the Syrian government announced that it had buried 112 of its army personnel.

Turkish tactics

Turkey, a NATO member-state, has vowed to retaliate for the jets downing and has since massed troops along the long border with Syria. Prime Minister Erdogan, talking after the shooting down, said that his country was changing the rules of engagement and would now treat every military element approaching Turkey from the Syrian border as a military threat and a military target.

This belligerent stance is aimed at thwarting Syrian efforts to stop the infiltration of rebel fighters and arms through the 880-kilometre-long border the two countries share. Turkey is threatening to invoke Article 4 of the NATO treaty, which allows member-states to call for emergency talks.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the alliance strongly condemned the shooting down of the jet, but said that Article 5 of the treaty which calls for a united military response if a NATO member-country is attacked was not discussed. The Obama administration had announced that it would work with Turkey, its NATO ally, to hold Syria accountable for the shooting down of the jet which United States officials claim was a deliberate act. But key NATO states such as Germany are reluctant to get sucked into a military conflict with Syria.

The Russian Foreign Ministry urged Turkey not to view the incident as a provocation or intentional action and that it should not be used to destabilise further the situation in the region.

But Erdogan seems determined to fish in troubled waters. In a speech to the countrys Parliament on June 26, Erdogan said that Turkey would provide all possible support to liberate Syrians from dictatorship. The Syrian rebel army is being trained by NATO at a command-and-control centre in Iskenderum, which is near the border with Syria.

The trouble in Syria has already had its repercussions in neighbouring Lebanon where fighting has broken out between pro- and anti-Syrian government supporters. In Iraq, extremist groups have been mounting deadly terror attacks against Shia pilgrims and places of worship.

Against war efforts

Syria is not Libya. It will not implode. It will explode beyond its borders, Kofi Annan, the U.N. peace envoy to Syria and former U.N. Secretary-General, has warned. Even in Libya, U.S./NATO intervention has only wrought chaos and anarchy. The legacy of the U.S. invasion of Iraq is still playing havoc in the region, stoking sectarian strife and regional animosities. The Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Maguire issued a heartfelt plea to stop the rush towards war in Syria. We need to stop this mad rush towards a war the mothers and fathers and children of Syria do not want and do not deserve, she wrote. But a more recent Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Obama, seems to be all for a military solution to the Syrian crisis.

The Syrian opposition, now in possession of lethal sophisticated arms supplied by the West and its regional allies, has been targeting the Syrian army and government buildings in Damascus province and a few other cities. Stories in the American media have now acknowledged the widely known fact that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is training the anti-government forces based in Turkey and other neighbouring countries. Gunmen backed by the West attacked a pro-government television station, Ikhbariya TV, located in the southern suburbs of Damascus. Three journalists and four security guards were killed in the attack. After bombing the building to rubble, the militants took away a dozen employees. Their fate is still unclear. There was hardly any criticism of these heinous acts from Western leaders posing themselves as champions of democracy.

The U.N. Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) has said that Syrians are increasingly targeted because of their religious beliefs. It has now come to light that those killed in the massacre at Houla were mostly Alawites. The German newspaper Frankfurter Algermeine Zeitung has reported that the real authors of the Houla massacres were members of the Free Syrian Army. Alawites, along with Christian and other minorities, are known to support the government. Amnesty International has documented the killing of captured soldiers and also the kidnapping and killing of people suspected to be close to the government. The U.Ns Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict condemned the recruitment and use of children by the armed groups.

The U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has been demanding the ouster of the Syrian President on every available occasion. She repeated the demand when a special meeting of the U.N. was convened in Geneva at the end of June in a seemingly last-ditch attempt to save the Kofi Annan Peace Plan. At the meeting, the key international powers agreed to the setting up of a transitional government that would include members of the opposition. Russia remained opposed to the American demand that Assad should not have any role in the proposed transitional government.

Message from Geneva

Before the Geneva meet, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had categorically stated that Moscow is not supporting and will not support any external meddling and this also applies to the fate of Bashar al-Assad. Russia as well as Kofi Annan wanted Iran and Saudi Arabia to be invited to the Geneva meeting to brighten the prospects of a negotiated peaceful settlement, as both the countries are interested parties in the Syrian conflict. But the U.S. Secretary of State objected to Irans participation arguing that it had no meaningful role to play. The main goal of U.S. and Israeli strategists is to install a pro-American regime in Damascus, leaving Iran without friends in the region. Iran could then be the next candidate for regime change.The communique, issued after the meeting, said that the proposed transitional government could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups, and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent. Despite the demands of the U.S. and its allies, Russia and China saw to it that the final communique called for a Syrian solution to the ongoing conflict. Kofi Annan warned that time was running out. He added that peaceful dialogue was the only way to avoid a full-fledged civil war. Annan warned about the dangers of underestimating the extreme dangers posed by the conflict to Syria, to the region and to the world. Lavrov said that he was delighted with the outcome of the Geneva meeting and that no foreign military intervention would be imposed on Syria.

Not surprisingly, the opposition in Syria was quick to reject the transitional government proposal. The Syrian National Council (SNC), the opposition umbrella group, said the latest proposals were a farce. The official Syrian newspaper, Al Baath, said that the agreement in Geneva failed because it resembled another enlarged meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

Iran said that the Geneva meet would have had a greater chance of success if Syrian and Iranian representatives were present at the talks. The meeting was not successful because Syria and some influential nations were not present, said the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdolohian.

President Assad, meanwhile, ordered his recently reshuffled Cabinet to focus single-mindedly on crushing the uprising, which is now in its 16th month. When one is in a state of war, all our policies and capabilities must be used to secure victory, Assad told the new Cabinet.

Venezuelan support

The Syrian government seems prepared for all eventualities. And it is far from isolated internationally. Venezuela, like other Latin American and Caribbean countries, has been with the Syrian government in its time of need. The Venezuelan government recently dispatched 35,000 tonnes of diesel to Syria. It is planning to send another shipload of diesel in the coming weeks. Syrians have been facing an acute energy crisis because of acts of sabotage and terrorism targeting gas and oil pipelines as well as the sanctions imposed by the European Union on the state oil company.

Iran has also been helping out. There are reports that a massive joint military exercise involving the Syrian, Russian, Chinese and Iranian armed forces is being planned in July. According to the Iranian media, 90,000 troops will participate in the land and sea war games.