The incident underscored the deteriorating relationship between the two neighbors as Syria’s internal conflict threatens to spill over its borders. But while Turkey has made clear that it wants Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gone, analysts say that Ankara is still a long way from turning angry rhetoric into action.
“There is little risk of a direct unilateral intervention,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) think tank in Istanbul. “The risk is more of a cross-border conflict or individual incidents.”
Turkey allows the Syrian opposition to operate on its territory. But when asked whether Turkey was creating a de facto buffer zone for the rebel Free Syrian Army, a Turkish official declined to “elaborate on the matter.” The Turkish military also refused to comment on specifics of the new rules of engagement.
After days of accusations over the downed plane, Assad told Iranian state television last week that only an internal solution could resolve the conflict. “The policies of the Turkish officials lead to the killing and bloodshed of the Syrian people,” he said.
On Saturday, Turkey scrambled six F-16 fighters after Syrian helicopters came near the border, according to an announcement on a Turkish military Web site.
Syria would probably consider a buffer zone an act of war, and the Turkish government appeared careful with its words. However, in recent months, Turkish officials have acknowledged that they have drawn up plans for such a zone but say they do not want to act without the support of the international community.
Ulgen said the country was “aware of the limits imposed by the international context on Turkey’s actions” in Syria. But if faced with another incident, Turkish troops were likely to return fire or even cross the border for a short period to attack a target, he said.
“Again, that’s in reaction to an aggression from Syria,” Ulgen said. “The crucial factor is to eliminate the threat to Turkey.”
Turkey hosts about 33,000 Syrian refugees in camps along the border, and it fears that a greater influx could be destabilizing. Along with the downing of the plane on June 22, there have been several other cross-border incidents during the past six months, including one in April in which Syrian military gunfire struck a refugee camp and injured three people.
Some in Turkey are concerned that Syria could help rekindle Turkey’s 30-year-old conflict with separatist elements within its Kurdish minority.
A Turkish official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said intelligence reports suggested that the Assad government had allowed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a guerrilla organization fighting the Turkish state, to operate in northern Syria.