Turkey well equipped to confront Assad threat
The Turkish reaction to Syrian shelling was rather muted but may be ramped up if needed, writes TOM CLONAN
ON WEDNESDAY, Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad launched an artillery strike on the Turkish border town of Akçakale. Two women and three children were killed. Turkey’s reaction has been twofold.
The initial military response was slightly delayed. According to Turkish military sources, a crater analysis and forensic examination of the scene of the attack was undertaken. This, according to Turkish officials, established that the munition fired from Syria was launched by Assad forces in a military base at Tal al-Abyad – just south of Akçakale. Using radar technology, Turkish artillery units then directed what is known as “counter-battery fire” on to the Syrian military base.
This was a conservative retaliation. There were no Turkish air strikes for example. Turkish artillery units – organic to Akçakale’s pre-existing military infrastructure – confined their attacks to a local target, just inside Syrian territory.
The second component of Turkey’s reaction is more significant. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, secured parliamentary approval – for one year – for punitive “hot pursuit” military action along its 600-mile border with Syria. Turkey’s ability to mount punitive or expeditionary military missions into Syria is well established.
The Turkish armed forces, with almost one million troops, is the second-largest standing army in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It is also well equipped. It is capable of mobilising an armoured and mechanised battle group of some 50,000 troops within 72 hours, under Nato standby or rapid response arrangements.
Its armour includes thousands of state-of-the-art US- and German-manufactured M60 and Leopard Main Battle Tanks. Its airforce – the third largest in Nato – has more than 400 serviceable attack aircraft including F16 and F35 joint strike fighters.
Turkey has made ample use of these assets over the past decade to launch punitive operations deep inside Iraq against Kurdish separatists, thus showing it is ready, willing and able – both militarily and politically – to launch attacks against Syria’s military.
Assad’s forces – the Syrian Arab Army – consist of approximately 300,000 troops. They are relatively poorly equipped with outdated Russian equipment including T54 and T72 tanks. The Syrian Air Force has approximately 40 Mig 29 Fighters. After years of sanctions and 18 months of civil war, it is not clear how many of these aircraft are serviceable. The vast majority of Assad’s troops are poorly trained. Many are conscripts and are drawn from the Sunni Arab community who comprise approximately 74 per cent of Syria’s population. They have a limited appetite for fighting for Assad’s Allawite minority dictatorship. Many are defecting to the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Assad does, however, have the support of a number of key special forces units within Syria. Operating out of Damascus, they consist of two armoured divisions and one mechanised division of special forces units fanatical in their support of Assad. They, in turn, are augmented by a division of Assad’s Republican Guard. While these forces are fanatical in their support of Assad – and are believed to have killed as many as 30,000 Syrian citizens, including 2,000 children since March 2011 – they are, by conventional military standards, a weakened force.
Significantly, Turkey has invoked article four of Nato’s charter to begin discussions about the establishment of a so-called safe zone in northern Syria. The Free Syrian Army is gaining ground all along the Turkish border, from Aleppo in the west through ar-Raqqah in the centre and towards al-Hasakah in the east. Turkey may seek to convert this area into a buffer zone or safe zone to secure two short-term outcomes.
Such a zone – in effect, a no-fly zone patrolled by Turkish combat aircraft – would deter Assad’s forces from encroaching on Turkey’s border. It would also provide a safe haven of sorts for Syrian, mostly Sunni, refugees fleeing Assad’s troops. Such a safe zone would also stem the flow of refugees into Turkish territory proper. At present there are almost 100,000 Syrian refugees sheltering in Turkish border towns.
Turkey’s military and political aims at this point – similar to the strategy it employed when faced with the Kurdish threat from Iraq – will be to weaken Assad’s grip on the country while stopping short of full-scale confrontation and the risk of war. Such a war would have consequences for regional stability in the Middle East.
TOM CLONANis a security analyst. He lectures in the school of media at DIT