Increasing tensions between Turkey and Syria may have spun out of control Friday after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan announced his country was able to confirm that Syria shot down a Turkish F-4 jet. The crew of two is missing and both Turkish and Syrian forces are conducting searches. Syria claims the warplane was flying low and well within its territorial waters.
Prior to the uprising in Syria, relations between the two countries had been somewhat tame for the last decade, including diplomatic visits and a joint three-day military exercise along their mutual border in 2009. But the recent struggles of Assad to maintain power in Syria appears to have re-opened some old wounds.
Turkey and Syria have a long history of strained relations. They share a border over 840 kilometers, so border and water rights disputes have been an on and off irritant. Turkey has publicly condemned Syria for terrorist activity and claimed Syria promoted the training of militants expressly for attacks against Turkey.
When the Syrian uprising began, Turkey held diplomatic talks in an attempt to find a resolution that would allow for more democracy within Syria but also keep Assad in power. As the violence in Syria continued the meetings deteriorated to the point where Turkey began demanding that reforms take place, regardless of Assad’s future. Unmoved by the tough-talk, Assad went about his house-cleaning. This led to Prime Minister Erdogan suspending all agreements and trade relations between his country and Syria.
Turkey has accepted some 32,000 refugees during the 16-month Syrian revolt. It also allows, to the displeasure of Assad, the rebel Syrian Free Army to operate from its territory. In April, Syrian forces fired across the border resulting in further teeth grinding. And Friday, Syria blew a Turkish plane out of the sky.
Has the fuse been lit? Erdogan’s office said in a statement that, “Turkey will present its final stance after the incident has been fully brought to light and decisively take the necessary steps.”
Turkey has the second largest army in NATO. By bulk, it would be a formidable foe for a Syrian force struggling to put down an internal rebellion. Additionally, the Turkish army has experience. Kurdish rebels inside Turkey have waged a 30-year, on and off armed rebellion including street-level guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks, a very similar environment to that of Syria.
Up to this point, Turkey has been reluctant to jump in. They fear that if the do, Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, may become involved. Will the cross-border shooting and lost jet prove to be too much for Turkey to overlook and push them into action against Syria? And if it does take action, what of Iran or Russia?
Analysts and regional experts are unsure what will happen next but like the rest of the world, they will continue to watch the events unfold.