Turkey-Syria Conflict Escalation: Strategic Perspectives – Analysis


By Dr. Subhash Kapila

“Turkey is trapped between national honour and national interest, the national honour required that Erdogan responded in some way that shows toughness and resolve and would intimidate the Syrians from further actions across the border. On the other hand, the national interest is to stay out of Syria. Syria is a political Vietnam for Turkey, it’s a swamp. It could suck Turkey in and cost Erdogan a great deal” — Joshua Landis, Director, Center for Middle East Studies

“While Turkey blamed Wednesday’s attack on the Syrian regime, it remains unclear whether it was a deliberate attack or an errant bombing. Most analysts in Turkey concluded that President (Bashar al-) Assad had little to gain from targeting Turkish civilians”   The Wall Street Journal

The Middle East seems to be irretrievably destined to a recurring cycle of conflicts arising from both external power-play and intra-regional power struggles for regional pre-eminence. The Turkey-Syria conflict escalation emerges from an explosive mix of both these factors.

In terms of global power-play, any escalation of the Syria-Turkey conflict escalation, more by the latter, would provide a plausible reason for military intervention by NATO-backed Turkey

The strategic objective in this case would not be restoration of political stability but as pointed out by me in an earlier Paper is to downsize Iran’s emergence as the formidable regional power in the Middle East By a regime change in Syria, the United States, European countries and the Middle East regional powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia want to disrupt the existing Shia-Crescent comprising Iran-Syria Lebanon.

This strategic resonance between the US and the West on one hand and Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the other is at the root of the civil war in Syria where all these nations are funnelling-in arms shipments to Syrian rebels created by these nations. In the case of Turkey, the so-called Syrian Free Army is operating from Southern Turkey borders with Syria.

In terms of conflict escalation two things come to the fore. Syria is in no position to escalate hostilities against Turkey as Syria is heavily engaged in combatting the externally-inspired civil war against the regime in Damascus.

Turkey presumably over-reached itself by acting as a spring-board on behalf of USA and Saudi Arabia, both wanting to contain Iran’s strategic reach in Syria and Lebanon. It should have never allowed the Syrian rebels to establish themselves on Turkish soil and also acting as a conduit for external arms shipments to the Syrian rebels. This for a very good reason and that is its own strategic vulnerabilities

In terms of strategic perspectives, what needs to be pointed out is that any external military intervention in Syria would ignite the tinder-box on which the Middle East is today sitting on. It is well observed above that Syria could well turn out to be Turkey’s Vietnam

Strategically, Turkey also has to consider the possibility that in the event of a Turkish military intervention in Syria, the tangential danger exits of the Kurdish political and armed groupings uniting to establish an independent Kurdistan.

The United States needs to ponder that after its strategically debilitating experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, whether it still has the clout and resources to instigate a military intervention in Syria through proxy use of Turkey and whether it would have the will to draw Turkey’s chestnuts out of the fire, once it lands up in a Vietnam like quagmire in Syria.

Strategically, the perspectives of energy security and oil politics being affected by the impact of Turkey-Syria conflict escalation needs to be pondered seriously both by the United States and Turkey. Can the US economy afford a rise in global oil prices? In the last week itself oil prices jumped by $12 a barrel and if the conflict escalates one can be reasonably sure that oil prices would jump sky-high.

Turkey’s economic situation is not all that rosy today. Reports indicate that the Turkish economy is subsisting today on short-term credits from Saudi Arabia and Gulf monarchies—all implacable enemies of Iran—the real target in the current conflict escalation.

Domestic political reactions to any conflict -escalation involving Turkey and Syria is a major factor that cannot be ignored. Within Turkey there has been widespread opposition to the Government’s moves against Syria. Protest demonstrations indicate that the Turkish people do not want Turkey to fight proxy wars for the United States and Saudi Arabia.

In the United States with a presidential election on and despite the rhetoric of presidential contender Mitt Romney that he would send shipments of higher calibre weapons to Syrian rebels, the American people do not seem to have appetite for another US military intervention for neo-conservative reasons only.

Reactions of Russia and China also need to be factored-in when possible escalation of Turkey-Syria conflict is very much on. Both Russia and China oppose a military solution of the civil war in Syria. They would very much like a political solution to be found both within Syria itself and additionally by regional countries having a stake in the regional stability.

Turkish Government’s actions in getting parliamentary approval for military strikes in Syria do not denote that a political solution is being sought. This could not be expected to go well with Russia and China with whom the new formulations in Turkish foreign policy is seeking substantive political and strategic relationships.

Overall the effects of any military intervention by Turkey in Syria would have multiple adverse effects on Turkey. Such a military intervention does have the potential to ignite a unity wave within Syria fuelled by Syrian nationalism. Turkey’s hedging strategies of the last couple of years against US and NATO of moving closer to Russia and China would come to a naught. Turkey with a Turkish military intervention in Syria in the end-game would perforce have to rely on US and NATO robbing the autonomy that Turkey is seeking in its foreign policy formulations.

The moot question that now arises is whether Turkey can retrace its steps from military brinkmanship and conflict-escalation? The answer is negative.

Turkey seemingly stands drawn too deeply into the geostrategic and geopolitical game of United States and Saudi Arabia to displace Syria from being a strategic protégé of Iran. Syria is not a military threat to any of its neighbours. Syria emerges as a threat in the perceptions of USA, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia when viewed as a strategic partner of Iran in the region.

Iran is the real strategic target in the Turkey-Syria conflict escalation and what is being played out is a proxy war against Iran because none of the regional contenders of Iran in the power play have the political will to take on Iran.

It that is acceded then the concluding question that emerges is that if the real target in Turkey-Syria conflict escalation is Iran, then would not Iran be tempted to use its proxy military assets in the region to relieve the military pressures being built up on Syria?

Can all the actors in the regional power-play being played out in the Turkey-Syria conflict escalation afford the spill-over military effects which like molten lava could spread in uncertain directions in the Middle East?


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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