- Last Updated: 5:13 PM, June 26, 2012
- Posted: 11:02 PM, June 25, 2012
Syria’s downing of a Turkish plane on Friday may present the perfect opportunity for intervention in the bleeding country. Now it’s all up to the leader of the free world.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that is.
With America unwilling to lead, the Turkish prime minister represents the last hope for the Syrians begging honorable outsiders to help them overthrow butchering despot Bashar al-Assad.
But not so fast. For now, Erdogan is receiving world-wide kudos from the usual suspects (the United Nations, Russia, China, NATO leaders) for his restraint in the face of provocation. As far as he can read America’s confusing signals (we’re outraged; we still support the hopeless Annan plan), Washington too wants him to stay above the Syrian fray.
Meanwhile, Ankara has asked NATO to discuss Syria’s shootdown of its unarmed F-4 Phantom jet; the alliance will meet for consultation in Brussels today. By appealing to NATO, Erdogan is basically asking the allies to restrain him. (This fits his usual response to perceived slaps in the face — namely, to strongly demand an apology.)
But domestic pressure back home may force him to flex more muscle after all.
Accounts of the incident vary: Syria says the Turkish aircraft was above its territorial waters when it was downed; Turkey insists that, although the plane briefly entered Syrian airspace, the attack came outside it.
Then there’s the whodunit. Damascus claims that, while it was its right to shoot the plane, the incident was a “mistake”; we’re to believe that an air-defense unit acted on its own.
But many in the region are sure that Assad or one of his top commanders decided to send a message to Ankara. Or perhaps the Iranians (who’ve reportedly sent elite units to Syria) did it to settle scores with Erdogan. Or a rogue rebel did it, to provoke Turkey. Plus there are the usual “reports” that the evil Mossad is behind it all.
And how about Russia? Moscow officials indicated in Russian press reports that the Turkish plane was flying in the area to test Syria’s air defenses, which Russia has modernized in recent years. Did Moscow order the downing to deter Turkey (or any other outsider) from harboring any funny ideas?
No matter: Now all eyes are on Erdogan.
On one side is President Obama. The last thing he needs right now is a NATO ally (and Erdogan is also a personal friend and adviser) invoking the alliance’s one-for-all-and-all-for-one credo.
Hoping that the Syrian mess would somehow clean itself up, Washington has long ceded leadership over it to Ankara. Here’s a Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweet on Sunday: “Turkey has been a leader in the international community’s effort to address Syrian regime’s violence.”
Turkey, once an Assad ally, does have more immediate concerns than we do in this fight: Itsborder with Syria is 565 miles long, and 30,000 refugees from the Syrian bloodbath are flooding the country, living in ever-growing Turkish-built camps near the border.
Worse: Assad now is attempting to renew his father’s old alliances with anti-Ankara Kurds, threatening to use them to unleash new rounds of terror against Turks.
So unless the violence somehow ends in Syria (very unlikely), Turkey may need to intervene sooner or later, regardless of our pressure.
But perhaps not yet.
Yesterday, Turkey sent letters to the United Nations, indicating that it may, for now, opt for meaningless condemnation. Today’s NATO meeting may be more serious, but the alliance’s leaders have already publicly cautioned against any military response.
On the other hand, the two F-4 pilots are, as yet, missing. If they’re found dead, Turkish public anger will rise even further, demanding more than words to avenge Syria’s cowardly attack. And later yesterday Turkey said a second plane had been shot at, shortly after the F-4 downing.
The mercurial Erdogan, then, is now the man. It’s up to him to decide between the West’s inaction, his own public’s ire and the Syrian people’s screams of pain. All turn their lonely eyes to him. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? (Yes, that used to be us.)
Twitter: @bennyavniFollow @NYPostOpinion