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5 reasons Turkey is unlikely to go to war with Syria

05/16/2013 06:25 EDT | Updated 07/16/2013 05:12 EDT
While Syria's civil war is increasingly bleeding over into neighbouring Turkey, including a bombing in a border town this past weekend, most Middle East watchers say it's unlikely that Turkey will strike back militarily.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Thursday, where he is expected to exert pressure on his American counterpart to commit to a greater military role in war-racked Syria.

Turkey, which shares an 822-kilometre-long border with Syria, has been among the most strident critics of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The conflict between the Syrian government and rebel forces has dragged on for over two years and killed at least 70,000 people, according to UN and other estimates.

Earlier this week, Turkish security services arrested nine individuals in connection with the bombings in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli this past weekend, which killed 46 people.

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The Turkish government says these individuals have connections to Syrian intelligence. Syria has denied any involvement.

Turkey has increasingly felt the heat of the Syrian crisis, but experts say that factors like the ongoing peace talks with Kurdish rebels and the prospect of a showdown with Iran make it unlikely that Turkey will go to war.

"Turkey wants to play a bigger role in Syria, but I don't think it will go to a military intervention," says Noomane Raboudi, a professor of Arab and Islamic studies at the University of Ottawa.

Here are some of the reasons why.

1) There's little support for it in Turkey

The Syrian civil war has spilled over into Turkey on a number of occasions — in addition to the recent bombings in Reyhanli, there was a car bomb at a Turkish border crossing in February that killed 14; and last June Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet off the Syrian coast.

However, despite these seeming acts of aggression, there has been little appetite among average Turks for an incursion into Syria, says Amir Hassanpour, a retired professor of Mideast affairs at the University of Toronto.

The main reason for this, he says, is that Turks are tired of bloodshed. Not only has Turkey recently come through a three-decade civil war of its own with Kurdish rebels, which claimed 40,000 lives, it has also witnessed at close hand the bloody, chaotic outcomes of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Public opinion doesn't really like Turkish involvement in wars in the region," says Hassanpour.

2) The Turkish leadership has domestic demands

The other factor here is that Prime Minister Erdogan is preoccupied with two equally pressing domestic issues -- forging a peace agreement with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and reaching consensus on a new constitution -- observes Reva Bhalla, vice-president of global analysis for the Texas-based consultancy Stratfor.

Turkey's 30-year battle with Kurdish rebels, which are located largely in the southeastern party of the country bordering Iraq, came to an end in March when jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan announced a truce.

Since then, the Turkish government has been working to solidify the peace, and part of that is enshrining rights for Kurds in a new constitution.

"This is a very sensitive political time for the ruling party, as Erdogan is trying to cobble together a whole series of constitutional revisions and at the same time negotiate a comprehensive peace deal with the PKK — and those two issues are intertwined," says Bhalla.

3) Military intervention could threaten a PKK peace deal

The PKK has links to Kurdish populations not only in Turkey, but in northern Iraq and northern Syria, areas where Turkish forces and Kurdish rebels have clashed repeatedly in the last three decades.

While Turkey still classifies the PKK as a terrorist organization, the government is allowing PKK members, under the current peace negotiations, to withdraw from Turkey to return to northern Iraq.

Bhalla says that if Turkey were to jump into the fray in Syria, it would likely galvanize Kurdish fighters living in northern Syria, and could unravel the delicate peace that the two sides have managed to achieve in recent months.

4) Confrontation with Iran

"When you talk about Syria, you are also talking automatically about Iran," says Raboudi.

Iran and Syria have enjoyed a long-standing friendship, not least because they both aim to counteract the influence of the U.S. and Israel in the region.

Throughout the current crisis, the Iranian leadership has supported Syria's embattled Assad politically as well as militarily (often transporting arms through Iraqi airspace).

The Sunni-led government of Turkey has had reasonably good relations with the Shia theocracy of Iran.

But if Turkey were to intervene in Syria, Raboudi says it's possible that it could spur Iran, one of the region's biggest powers, to become more actively involved — and turn an already messy sectarian battle into an even bloodier conflagration.

5) The Americans are reluctant to fight

While Turkey has an estimable army, Bhalla says the country would only act militarily if the U.S. took the lead and provided the majority of weaponry and tactical support.

"Turkey is not going to intervene militarily in Syria on a meaningful scale without the United States playing that primary role," says Bhalla.

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Despite strong criticism of the Assad regime, the Obama administration has been reluctant to commit to any kind of military force in Syria. One reason is that U.S. intervention could ignite a war with Iran, says Hassanpour. Plus, there's the unhappy legacy of recent U.S. wars in the region, which weighs heavily on the American public.

"The United States cannot engage in another war — it has already lost the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq," says Hassanpour.

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