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Heightened Tensions Raise Stakes for Turkey, Syria

  • Dorian Jones

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the cockpit of Hurkus (Freebird), Turkey's first locally produced military training plane, outside Ankara, Turkey, June 27, 2012 (AP).

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the cockpit of Hurkus (Freebird), Turkey's first locally produced military training plane, outside Ankara, Turkey, June 27, 2012 (AP).

ISTANBUL - Turkey's prime minister announced toughened steps against Syria Tuesday in response to the downing of a Turkish military jet by Syrian forces last Friday.

Reacting to the shoot-down, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced any Syrian armed forces moving close to the 900-kilometer long shared border could be considered a military target.

Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal says the move is purely defensive.

"We just wish to defend our borders and we don't want any kind of incursions," said Unal. "Last month there were five different and separate airspace violations by Syrian helicopters and there [are] also other negative developments affecting the daily situation on our side of the border."

But the consequences of Ankara's threat could be far reaching for Damascus, says international relations expert Soli Ozel of Kadir Has University. He says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has a difficult choice.

"I suppose the next step would be the Turkish troops will be shooting at them," said Ozel. "And if the Syrians abide by this, if they take it seriously and they don't come close to our borders, then maybe this can [be] considered as the beginning of a safety zone."

Syrian rebels and opposition groups have been calling for the creation of safe havens in Syria for refugees and rebels alike. Erdogan tentatively proposed the idea last December. Ankara has been in the forefront of supporting the Syrian opposition, although it has strenuously denied arming or facilitating the arming of rebels fighting pro-Assad forces.

But Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and head of the Istanbul-based research institute Edam, says the downing of a Turkish jet may well accelerate a change in that policy.

"There are many indications that Turkey is turning a blind eye to the shipment of weapons through Turkish territory to the Syrian opposition if not more," said Ulgen. "And it will certainly increase even if the government's official position will not change."

But political observers say Ankara's increasingly robust stance against Damascus has met with a skeptical response by much of the Turkish public. Before the shooting down of the military plane, opinion polls found the overwhelming majority opposed interfering in Syria.

Even after the shoot-down, there have been few displays of Turkish public anger against Damascus.

Semih Idiz is diplomatic correspondent for the Milliyet newspaper.

"By talking to the proverbial taxi driver or barber whatever, the question is 'Why did we come to this point with Syria?' 'What is our interest in this, why are we in a situation where we might go to war when there is nothing that directly influences Turkey's interest?' There are questions in the public whether the policy being pursued is a correct one," said Idiz.

Erdogan on Tuesday strongly condemned the media for its continuing questioning of why the downed Turkish warplane was flying so close to Syrian airspace.

On the streets of Istanbul, questions about the circumstances of the shoot-down, along with concerns about war, are in the forefront of people's minds.

When asked about the prime minister's stance towards Syria, one man said:

"What happened is normal. We sent our warplane to Syria and they shoot it down, what do they expect?" he said.

But another man was more supportive of the prime minister.

"I guess he is right, because they attacked us. We say if you come near us, we can also do the same thing to you. We are not attacking them but we are just warning them. But war is not good a thing for both countries," he said.

Erdogan has said he is not looking for a war with Syria.

International relations expert Soli Ozel says the prime minister is walking a difficult tightrope of backing efforts to bring down the Assad government but at the same time wanting to avoid conflict.

"If the Syrians challenge you, then you are in a bind, but that's why, the ambivalence right now, you say you are going to be responding, but you don't specify exactly when you are going to be responding and under what conditions," said Ozel.

Since Erdogan's Tuesday speech, the Turkish army has moved up armor and artillery to the Syrian border, and according to media reports, its forces are on high alert.

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