Ross Wilson is director of the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2005-2008.
The never-ending violence that wracks Syria has dramatically spilled across its borders in recent days. After having withheld a tough answer to the downing of its F-4 jet fighter in June and smaller incidents in the weeks since, Turkey responded to Syria's shelling of the southern frontier town of Akçakale on October 3 with force. It reacted similarly to cross-border mortar and artillery strikes on October 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 in the same area and farther west. Ankara's new stance aims to punish enemy forces for their actions. More importantly, it seeks to convince friends, allies, and others that Syria is spinning out of control, increasingly threatens regional stability, and warrants a firmer international stance. Circumstances increasingly cry out for more robust action—and for more U.S. leadership.
Syria's provocations follow months of violence and confrontation—in the west, on the border between Turkish Hatay and Syrian Idlib, and in the east, where Kurdish groups, including the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party, have taken advantage of Assad's waning authority to seize control and jockey for position in Syrian Kurds' hearts and minds. On the Syrian side below Akçakale and east of Hatay, rebels have apparently attempted to seize control of border crossings and establish safe zones adjacent to Turkey from which to operate. Actions by Damascus seem determined not to let that happen, though this requires its forces to operate right up and over to the two countries' meandering border. With similar developments reported in recent days along the Lebanese and Jordanian borders, Syrian instability is now clearly spilling out into the neighborhood. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on October 8 called the situation "extremely dangerous."
Ankara finds itself exposed and alone. So do Lebanon and Jordan. While Turks seem pleased about recent contingency planning talks with Washington, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has reportedly been flabbergasted by public silence in Western capitals about recent developments in Syria and the instability emanating from it. Six consecutive days of attacks by Syria on its neighbors make urgent achieving a stronger international response to the threat to regional peace and security that Assad's regime increasingly represents.
Late on October 3, NATO ambassadors "strongly condemned" Assad's shelling of Akçakale and declared that aggressive actions by Damascus constitute a "clear and present danger to the security" of NATO member Turkey. But a subcurrent of concern about Turkish hot-headedness exists as well. After the initial Syrian attack, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton called for restraint—by which they clearly meant Turkey, seemingly blaming Ankara for standing up to Assad and for its call on fellow allies to act together on Syria in more concerted ways.
Blaming Turkey represents exactly the wrong approach. It surely is a fact that Assad will fall, that ethnic and sectarian bloodletting and/or a humanitarian catastrophe seem nearly inevitable, and that Syria's massive chemical weapons stocks will very likely become an increasing concern of the world. In light of these obvious and predictable dangers, Alliance countries—in particular their national leaders, not just member-state ambassadors or Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen—should speak out strongly in support of Turkey, regarding Alliance interests in its security and that of the region, and on the need to contain the Syrian conflagration. They should make clear that Syrian actions across the border will be regarded as an Alliance issue—full stop and without equivocation.
Worry and even alarm about widening violence seem fully justified. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and other Western leaders are right to proceed with immense caution on the matter of military intervention to overthrow Assad. But a big space exists between that and the current wait-and-see approach. As Syria destabilizes the region, the facts cry out for Alliance leadership galvanized by the United States. A strong stand will make clear that NATO unequivocally supports Turkey and that the Alliance will work as a group to protect its common interests in regional stability. Such a stand will reassure others, especially the Jordanians and Lebanese. It will ensure Alliance solidarity at a critical time for the region in light of greater Syria-related dangers to come.
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