Border clashes offer Turkey chance to deal with Kurds in Syria
Tensions remain high along the Syria-Turkey border after violent artillery exchanges over the past week drew calls for restraint from the international community.
Close to 250 tanks were deployed to locations in Turkey's Sanliurga, Mardin and Gaziantep provinces when Ankara ordered the Turkish military to be ready for a possible clash with Syrian forces, unnamed military sources reported. Air bases in Diyarbakir and Malatya also remain on alert.
The Turkish armour deployment comes as tit-for-tat military exchanges escalate the potential for a misstep by already nervous troops.
Both governments are taking precautions to avoid dragging the region into another hot war.
But there are other subtle reasons for these military deployments. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is positioning his country to capitalise on the now almost inevitable scenario of a post-al Assad regime in the Syrian capital Damascus.
Militancy from Kurdish separatist groups in the region is on the rise. Turkey is exploring new ways of dealing with them and Syrian bombardments might inadvertently assist Ankara in this.
The Syrian-based Kurdish militants of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), historically Turkey’s main security threat, may become temporarily more vulnerable if Syrian President Bashar al Assad falls from power.
May take advantage of vacuum
Mr Erdogan may take advantage of a political vacuum in Syria to strike at Kurdish militants living in eastern Syria to help secure his political position in the future.
On October 4 a mortar team in northern Syria killed five members of a Turkish family when it fired over the border into southeastern Turkey.
For the first time since the Syrian conflict began in the spring of 2011, Turkey responded decisively to the barrage by launching volleys of its own artillery into Syria.
Perhaps the potential for larger military operations has grown with the recent artillery exchanges between the two nations. The potential for fighting has been an undercurrent in the region since at least the middle of this year as provocations between Ankara and Damascus increased.
In June a Syrian surface-to-air missile struck a Turkish RF-4 reconnaissance jet near the Hatay province in Syria, bringing it down over the Mediterranean. Turkey implored its Nato allies to sanction a direct military response for the outright act of war but Brussels would not comply.
Turkey tried invoking Article 5 of the Nato charter which states that an attack on one member is to be treated as an attack on all. Yet even as the jet was being salvaged by the Syrian navy, Turkey was politely requested to show restraint.
Ankara was left with no choice but to issue just firm rhetoric towards al Assad but ultimately it appeared weak and lost crucial credibility as a military power.
Syria, on the other hand, treated the incident as a propaganda full-house. By intimidating the powers of Nato into backing down, al Assad appeared untouchable.
This time Turkey was not going to let Damascus dictate the strategic tempo. Its response was measured and appropriate, winning back some regional respect for Ankara.
Both sides will want to de-escalate the situation before it moves out of control. According to a Syrian Foreign Ministry statement last weekend, Syria is ready to begin direct talks to ease tensions with Turkey.
The ministry approves Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's suggestion that the best way to resolve the tension is through direct dialogue by officials from the two countries.
Having proved its point that it will not be bombed with impunity, Turkey will begin to return to the defensive and monitor al Assad’s troops from a safe distance.
Syria has warned the Turks to stay out of their internal war, driving this message home by downing the Turkish aircraft.
Helping Syrian rebels
Even though Ankara has not yet seen fit to intervene openly in the on-going, messy internecine Syrian upheaval, Turkey is reportedly facilitating the delivery of weaponry and supplies to the Syrian rebels.
Aid for the rebels may now be increased by Turkey to draw the Syrian military away from the tensions at the border. Putting the rebels back in the firing line theoretically may alleviate that pressure while helping the rebels defeat the Syrian regime.
All this will help Mr Erdogan, who is facing heightened domestic pressure over the civil war raging to Turkey’s south.
Mr Erdogan was harshly criticised for his non-response to the downing of the fighter jet in June. Opposition political groups suggest his support of the Syrian rebels caused the violence to spill into Turkey, creating the very situation in which the cross-border mortar strike waslaunched.
The prime minister plans to turn Turkey’s political system into a presidential arrangement by the end of 2012. For such a radical change to occur, the constitution must be rewritten and the draft ratified by a national referendum.
Mr Erdogan has already begun the process and plans to run for president as soon as it passes. But to achieve this he needs the support of the anti-Kurdish opposition group, the Nationalist Movement Party.
A negotiated settlement with the Kurdish separatists might scuttle any support he desperately needs from the party. So he is looking for other ways to address heightened Kurdish militancy without risking too much politically.
Now allows troops on foreign soil
After the October 4 Syrian shelling of southern Turkey, its parliament enacted a law allowing the deployment of Turkish troops on foreign soil.
While Turkey has made periodic incursions into northern Iraq to engage Kurdish militants, it has not been able to strike their safe havens across the border.
The PKK is a separatist armed organisation based throughout Syria, Turkey and northern Iraq. Just last week leader Murat Karayilan emphatically denied there were fighters operating in Syria on behalf of the regime against the rebels, although this is hard to believe.
In the past, Bashar al Assad addressed the Kurdish question in much the same way as Turkey as an autonomous Kurdish state is unacceptable to both governments.
But Damascus has had to move away from this doctrine as Syria ceded de-facto control of its northeastern regions to Kurdish groups in July as it focused much-needed troops elsewhere to combat the uprising.
The removal of Syrian troops was partly designed to discourage Turkish support for the Syrian rebels. If the more militant groups of the PKK establish a stronger presence in northeastern Syria, Ankara may be forced to act and temporarily forget the rebels.
If the Syrian regime crumbles, as is becoming increasingly likely, the new law outlined in Ankara could see the Turks move into Syria against Kurdish enclaves.
Ankara is flexing its significant regional heft after a long period of non-interventionist policy, but its geopolitical constraints will limit how far it goes.
Moving against the Kurds is supported by much of the Arab world. However, the dynamics of Iranian-backed Iraq and Syria will dictate just how much opportunity Turkey will have to achieve this.
Nevertheless, the changing dynamics in the Levant offer the Turks an unprecedented chance to finally sort out an historical security matter for their benefit.
Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict