War began one hundred years ago. Along an obscure Turkish border forces from Montenegro, an advance guard of the allied Balkan League, invaded the Ottoman Empire. On October 8, 1912 this seemingly regional flare-up lit the spark that ignite the Balkan Wars and lead directly to two world wars and all manner of revolution, upheaval, and conflict.
Fighting has again erupted on a little known Turkish border. This time fighting is in the southeast of Turkey along the Syrian border. Comparisons between the conflagration begun in 1912 and the smolder of 2012 are thus far unwarranted. Yet the potential exists for the blaze to spread.
Turkey, as its precursor the Ottoman Empire, sits on the thresholds of conflicted worlds, and, as before, has geopolitical strategic significance far beyond the scope of its socioeconomic achievements. This probably accounts for my multi-semester, undergraduate infatuation with the Ottomans.
Critical details are missing, but it appears that the Syrian civil war to unseat the Baathist dictator Assad (the one Hilary Clinton called “a reformer” the same week his loyal troops opened fire on protesters) has brought fighting to the Turkish border. At present Syrian artillery barrages into Turkey are being dismissed as spillover, but the Turks are firing back. The thus far restrained response of the Turks should be applauded. It may not last.
Tensions have existed for some time. Turkey and Syria have for seventy years contested possession of the Hatay Province. The Islamists of Syria have long been suspicious of the predominantly secular Turk rulers. The two nations have long-standing disputes over waterway control, posture toward Kurds, and air space. In recent weeks a Turkish F-4 fighter was shot down in Syria, and the Turkish government has approved “cross border operations.” It is also worth noting that the recent skirmishes actually date back to cross-border actions taken in April.
Turkey is now massing forces near the Syrian border. Turkish President Ghul declared “worst case scenarios” are occurring within Syria and ominously announced that Turkey is prepared to do “whatever is necessary.” Be mindful that Turkey is a long-standing member of NATO, which today announced that NATO is prepared to defend vigorously Turkish interests.
For ten years America, with its NATO allies, has fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those ten years are being capped by the Arab Spring that has upturned governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, while challenging stability in at least another ten nations. Add Israel and a near-nuclear Iran to the mix and it requires no great imagination to see a full eruption of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations play out. The most obvious scenario – but by no means the only possible one – has flailing rulers manipulate pan-Arab loyalties to distract from their own failings. Broadened military action against Western backed powers like Turkey and Israel would follow. NATO response is predetermined.
To my knowledge neither Romney nor Obama have expressed a comprehensive strategy for American priorities in the region. Romney argues to arm Syrian rebels, thereby aiding them in toppling the Assad regime and perhaps giving them enough force to push away from the Turkish border. Obama seems to be relying on his usual strategy, hope. Obama hopes that things simmer down quickly, and the U.S. can stay out of the conflict. Neither man’s plan is ideal, but an ideal is hard to imagine.
While it is true that the Turks have generously accommodated the war refugees of Syria, Turkish patience is at an end. Ankara announced that it will harbor no more refugees. The United Nations predicts that the flight of refugees is only just beginning.
One hundred years ago, along an obscure Turkish border, a century of war began. Those wars allowed the victors to draw new maps for the Middle East. Those maps remain one cause of the regional instability. We can only hope that the current Turkish border battles are a poetic end point for the wars of the twentieth century. Since that is almost inconceivable, let us hope that the current hostilities can at least be contained.