The world is a couple of steps closer to a new Middle East war this morning. Even as the bloodshed in Syria gets worse and government gunships and artillery pound rebel controlled neighborhoods in the country’s largest city, Turkey is moving closer to striking Syria, and Iran is threatening to respond.
Turkey has sent troops and missile batteries to its border with Syria as a precautionary measure, ratcheting up fears that the Syria’s mess may start spilling over its borders. Parts of the north of Syria are under Kurdish militia control, a fact that’s keeping Ankara up at night. The New York Times reports:
Turkish officials now fear that Syria could become a beachhead for Kurdish militants bent on wreaking havoc inside Turkey. Turkish officials have indicated that they will not hesitate to strike in Syria should Kurdish militants stage attacks against Turkey from there.
Iran for its part thundered that it would not stand by idly if Syria were invaded. Ahram Online:
“Any attack on Syrian territory will meet with a harsh response, and the Iranian-Syrian mutual defence agreement will be activated,” the [pro-Damascus] Al-Watan newspaper said.
“Turkey has received very strong warnings in the past few hours and the following message — beware changing the rules of the game,” the paper added.
One Middle Eastern cultural preference transcends ethnic and religious divides—Sunni, Shiite, Arab, Persian, Turkish, Jewish: this is a region that likes its rhetoric spicy. Where a European government might “view with concern,” a Middle Eastern government might threaten war.
That makes it hard sometimes to separate signal from noise: in a rhetorical climate like this, a threat of war can sometimes conceal a plea for peace. At this point, Turkey seems more serious than Iran. Turkey has a long history of fighting Kurdish rebels, and it has shown no reluctance to send planes and even troops against Kurdish groups operating in northern Iraq. If Syria descends into anarchy, or if a desperate central government tries to buy the Kurds off by offering them a free hand in the north, Turkey is likely to act if it believes groups like the PKK are getting significant support from Syrian allies.
The question is whether Iran is bluffing that Turkish action in Syria would draw Iran into the fray. Launching a war against a NATO ally seems rash given Iran’s fears of the US and Israel, but the prospect of an American-backed Turkish intervention in Syria is a major threat to what is left of Iran’s regional position.
Elaborate conspiracy theories are as popular in the Middle East as fiery political rhetoric, and the guessing game about what Turkey and the US are up to in Syria leads many analysts to imagine complicated and elaborate plots. In article cited above, Ahram Online quotes an unnamed Arab diplomat claiming that Turkey is conspiring with the United States to use the Kurdish threat as a pretext to intervene in Syria.
“Ankara is preparing an agreement with Washington to intervene militarily in the Syrian (crisis), using the Kurdish card as an excuse,” the paper said.
“Turkey has agreed with the United States on a military intervention limited to the north of Syria, specifically the northern province of Aleppo, to pave the way for the creation of a safe haven guarded by the armed gangs.”
Whether true or not, this is part of the optics of how the conflict is playing in the Middle East. And as Adam Garfinkle wrote on May 16, the Turks had mooted some kind of intervention with the Obama administration in the spring.
Many in Tehran probably assume that something like this is in the works, and they are certainly right that the US, its European allies, Turkey and the Gulf Arabs are united in the desire to see Iran’s ugly Syrian ally fall from power. Assad’s fall would leave Iran starkly isolated in a deeply hostile region with the leading inside and outside powers united in wanting to weaken it.
Few countries have found themselves in such a dangerous position, and the promise of further vetoes in the Security Council by China and Russia is not a lot of comfort to the embattled mullahs in Iran. One would hope that this would strengthen the hands of those in Iran who see a nuclear compromise as the best way to enhance regime security, but that is perhaps a little utopian. Both Syria and Libya are countries who did not press ahead with nuclear programs and their lack of nukes emboldened rather than mollified their enemies abroad.
Iran is a bit like a cornered animal at the moment: snarling defiance as it looks for an opening. It’s hard to predict how different factions and political groups in this complicated and mysterious regime will respond, but keeping Assad in power indefinitely may strike many Iranians as desirable but not possible under the circumstances. If that is the calculation of the Supreme Leader and his close associates, Iran will likely not respond to Turkish incursions into the Kurdish area with war.
But there are probably people in Iran who think the preservation of its regional power base is a matter of life and death for the regime. If Syria falls, Lebanon is lost and the balance will tip away from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq. Isolated, embargoed, threatened by enemies outside and within, the future of the Islamic Republic might look very bleak without its regional allies and clients. People who see the situation this way might be willing to risk a clash with Turkey as a necessary measure of self defense, perhaps reasoning that the unpopularity of Turkish anti-Kurd policy in Europe could help prevent NATO from coming to Turkey’s side in clashes that were outside Turkey’s own territory.
The larger point here is that anarchy and chaos in Syria is inherently destabilizing and offers many routes to a wider international conflict. Israel can’t allow Hezbollah to inherit Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Russia has citizens, military assets and significant economic interests in the country. Turkey cannot allow the Kurdish areas to be used as bases against it. Iraq fears (and with very good reason) that a Sunni government in Damascus would start exporting weapons and fighters to Sunnis inside Iraq. With Assad out of power, the delicate political arrangements in Lebanon are completely unbalanced; historically, Lebanese politics are adjudicated through the mechanism of civil wars that, from time to time, draw in outside forces as well.
The world has been appalled by the bloodshed in Syria to date. We will be very lucky indeed if there isn’t much more killing and conflict ahead.