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Regime tactics open door to cross-border escalation 29 juin 2012

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Financial Times (UK) Friday, June 29, 2012, p. 4

By David Gardner

Last Friday’s downing of a Turkish jet-fighter by Syrian anti-aircraft fire is probably the closest Syria’s 15-month conflict has come to sucking in the shadow warriors behind the rebels battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The measured response of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish prime minister, belies his tempestuous reputation and means it is unlikely that Turkey, much less its Nato allies, will become open participants in the conflict – at least for now.

Turkish officials have made it clear Turkey will not intervene except under an international umbrella. That would have to be provided by the UN Security Council and Nato, with Arab League backing.

This looks unlikely despite the UN envoy Kofi Annan’s convening of a new contact group to discuss a transition plan in Geneva this weekend.

But this does not mean that the Syrian conflict cannot be « internationalised » by accident.

There is, for example, already one instance in which Ankara has signalled it will react forcefully – if Damascus throws its weight behind the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which continues to wage a nagging insurgency in south-east Turkey. Although the PKK operates primarily from the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, many in its ranks are Syrian Kurds.

President Assad’s late father, Hafez al-Assad, long backed the PKK until Turkey massed troops and tanks on his border in 1998. Bashar al-Assad has sought to neutralise Syria’s Kurdish minority by granting citizenship to hundreds of thousands of stateless Kurds, and using the PKK as enforcers in Syria’s Kurdish areas and as a foil to Turkey. That could turn into a provocative tactic. « If Assad resumes that game, be sure we will respond by bombing Syria », one Turkish officer told the FT.

But intervention plans are one thing, and accidents that trigger them are another – especially in light of the Assad regime’s recourse to cross-border violence. In the past three months, Syrian troops or militia have fired into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Mr Erdogan has changed his army’s rules of engage-ment to sanction attacks on Syrian forces that even approach the border.

These new dispositions create a de facto safe haven for rebels in the north of Syria, helping to consolidate their extensive control of the countryside. As the summer wears on, the Assad clan is going to have to decide what to do about rebel advances.

While its willingness to kill appears limitless, the regime’s options look limited. For it has never been clearer that its strike forces – essentially the Fourth Armoured Division and Republican Guard – are insufficient to regain control of the country. To recapture countryside in northern, eastern and central Syria would be to risk redeploying loyalist forces beyond the cities, just as fighting is closing in on the capital Damascus and defections are rising.

After repeatedly promising to impose a military solution, just as his father crushed Islamist insurgents in the early 1980s, President Assad’s options are narrowing. « Inside the Alawite community there is now real fear, » says a Lebanese politician who monitors Syria. « At the beginning everyone was convinced Bashar could solve the problem militarily, the way his father did. Now they have seen that he can’t, and he’s lost credibility. » The risk now, he said, was that the regime would lash out recklessly.

The younger Assad has over-reached before, notably in Lebanon and Iraq: the assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri forced his troops to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005; later that year, funnelling of jihadis into the Iraq conflict came close to provoking a US military response.

Assad’s international opponents have rejected all talk of intervention, for fear of the sectarian cocktail spilling over borders. That argument may need revising if the Assads internationalise the conflict anyway.

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