Free Syrian Army fighters are seen in a storage room in the Karmal Jabl district of Aleppo Syria, Sunday, October 14, 2012. Rolls of fabric are seen on the ground.
The conflict in Syria has escalated significantly in recent weeks. After months of mounting tension between Turkey and the Assad regime, the Turkish parliament took the step of authorizing cross-border military operations into Syria. Both sides have since exchanged artillery fire. As the political and military crisis deepens, The Prospect spoke with Steven Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, about the nature of the conflict and the possibility of its resolution.
Why has the Turkish government decided to escalate the conflict to this point?
The question is whether the Turks have escalated or the Syrians have escalated. This all started when Syrian shells fell on the Turkish side of the border, killing Turkish civilians. The Turks had been absorbing these kinds of things for quite some time, but this was the first time that Turkish civilians were killed. Remember the Syrians had shot down a Turkish jet operating in international waters over the summer. So the Turks had been absorbing these kind of things, and then with Turkish civilians killed, I don’t think politically they could have done anything different than respond in the way that they have. I did not expect the shelling to go on for as long as it had. I think, if I’m reading it correctly, that the Turks want to demonstrate to the Syrians that their words have meaning. That the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s authorization for the Turks to undertake cross-border raids was something that was meaningful—it wasn’t some empty gesture to try and intimidate the Syrians.
And of course, it’s very hard to predict what the Syrians are going to do. I don’t think the Turks have any interest in escalation in a wider regional war. The question is whether the Syrians—knowing that the Turks don’t have an interest in this, knowing that the Turks understand that getting deeply involved in Syria has tremendous costs—whether they’re nevertheless trying to provoke this kind of thing.
How is this going to end in your view? What’s the resolution to this?
It’s extraordinarily difficult to predict. I think the X-factor here is how the Syrians behave and I think that that is going to determine how the Turks respond. In some ways, the Turks are in a rather precarious position because they want to demonstrate that they mean what they say and they say what they mean, and that’s why you see the shelling. But the Syrians do have the ability to suck them into a conflict that the Turks would likely prefer to avoid. Or if they’re going to get sucked into a conflict, [the Turks] would have a lot of very capable partners with them, meaning the United States and NATO.
Given the unpredictability of the Syrians, and the way they’ve prosecuted this civil conflict and what they’re doing on the border, it remains open. It really could escalate into something bigger than what people intended. That’s the way in which conflicts happen very often. In the world in which Turkish leaders exist, that if civilians are getting hurt killed and property’s being destroyed, there’s going to be demands from the Turkish people to do something about this. And Turkish politicians are like politicians everywhere else—they want to respond to their constituency because they want to remain in power. That could lead to something bigger.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been calling for an immediate political solution to the crisis? How possible is that?
I don’t think it’s possible at all. I think all of the incentives, and we’ve been seeing this since January, all of the incentives are there for Assad and his family and the people around him to fight on. And that is precisely what they’ve done. I don’t see how that has changed. And I think that that is why we are going to continue to see the Syrians prosecute this war. Now there’s been some talk recently about how the opposition is willing to entertain the possibility of regime figures remaining in government as transitional figures and so on and so forth. That all sounds great and it’s potentially an important development but it doesn’t suggest that Assad and the people around him are necessarily willing to give it up. And that’s been the situation from the very start. They are leaders of a minority government, this is essentially a family-run business, and accommodation means an end to the Assad regime. To my mind, that is a recipe for the conflict to go on.
Governor Romney has called for arming the [Syria] rebels. What’s your take on that?
My position’s changed a bit. I think that now the situation has changed dramatically. There are still those humanitarian concerns and there still are those geostrategic issues—namely, the fall of the Assad regime means the end of the Iranian-Syrian strategic alliance. Any successor government is going to look to Turkey or Saudi Arabia. That’s the strategic end of it. But now we would be intervening in a full-scale civil war with armed fighters, different factions being armed by different outside forces. This is something where, getting involved, you could imagine being there for ten years. So in a way, I think that there was an opportunity to intervene in the service of both humanitarian concerns as well as American and Western geostrategic interests. Now in a cost-benefit analysis, the worst outcome has happened. We have this civil war, this complicated civil war. I think that now, in a cost-benefit analysis, it would be worse for us to get involved.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity