Saturday, June 23, 2012

Turkey: A Dangerous Week for Relations with Syria

turkish fighter plane shot down by syria
Originally published by

Turkey: A Dangerous Week for Relations with Syria
by Yigal Schleifer

For the last few months, Turkey has been executing a rather complicated dance with regards to troubled next door neighbor Syria. While supporting and housing elements of the Syrian opposition, Ankara has continued to insist it only providing aid for "humanitarian" -- rather than military -- efforts inside Syria. And although Ankara has clearly moved far back from its once warm relations with the Assad regime, it is also clearly not interested in a military confrontation with Damascus.

But this complicated Turkish-Syria dance became even more complex this week. First and foremost, the crash of a Turkish military today off the Syrian coast threatens to bring the two countries into direct conflict. At this point, details are still sketchy and it's not clear if the jet, an American-made F-4 that took off from an airbase in central Turkey's Malatya, was shot down by Syrian forces or crashed for some other reason. Early reports on the incident have been contradictory and the Turkish government, perhaps aware of previous efforts to draw it further into the Syrian conflict, has so far remained surprisingly even-keeled and cautious regarding the crash. Still, regardless of what caused the jet to crash, the incident certainly raises questions about what the Turkish warplane (one of two that were seen flying low over the sea near the Syrian border, according to Turkish press reports) was doing in the vicinity of Syria's airspace.

The crash, meanwhile, comes only a day after the New York Times reported that CIA agents based in Turkey are funneling weapons to rebels inside Syria (and a day after a Syrian air force pilot defected to Jordan in his Russian-made Mig 21). The weapons, according to the article, were being paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Times also quoted Syrian activists who said Turkish military vehicles had bring deliver anti-tank weapons to the border, which were then taken into Syria. Ankara, in response, denied the article's claims. "Turkey does not send weapons to any neighboring country including Syria," Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Selcuk Unal said in Ankara today.

Still, despite the caution and denials, it appears Ankara is slowly getting sucked into just the kind of military involvement in the Syrian conflict that it had initially tried very hard to avoid.