Remember the smoldering conflict I described as a low-intensity civil war back in March? Well, other people are beginning to agree with me. (Bashar al-Assad, for one.) The situation shows no sign of improving; Assad remains defiant, Russia still supports him, anti-government forces are still resisting, Homs is still being shelled (watch here), the West is still putting “pressure” on the government and there’s still no end in sight. (And Jadaliyya is still providing some of the best information and analysis.)
That doesn’t mean that nothing has changed, unfortunately. The conflict has intensified in the last few weeks, making any kind of settlement less and less likely. June has not been a good month in Syria. The head of the UN delegation said the situation has gotten markedly worse since the beginning of the month. Accordingly, the UN monitors have officially left, citing concerns about their own safety. In what is perhaps the most worrisome development, pro-government (or possibly just government) death squads made their first confirmed appearances. There have also been more high–profile defections. (And maybe the kidnapping of an important general by the anti-government side.) And just earlier today rebel forces stormed the officesof a state-owned news station in an attack.
Certainly the most significant development is the downing of a Turkish warplane by Syrian forces a few days ago. This is the first time the conflict has directly involved another country’s military, and it does not bode well for the conflict. It’s too early to say how this will affect the situation. There are conflicting reports of how the plane was shot down, where it was shot down and what it was doing at the time, all of which are pretty important pieces of information. The reactions on both sides have been relatively muted (particularly given that either country could construe/present the incident as casus belli). The plane wasn’t a fighter, but was equipped for surveillance, and it has been suggested that the Turks were spying on Syria, though the Turks claim the plane was only taking part in exercises near the border and either went off course or was unnecessarily attacked.
Whatever the case (and I sincerely doubt we’ll ever know), this adds a new wrinkle to a conflict that was already looking pretty pruny. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Syria in a speech yesterday to not send its forces near the border for risk of Turkish retaliation for any perceived provocation. Syria seems unlikely to abide by that warning, due to the fact that the Turkish border serves as an essential lifeline for the opposition. Guns, money, supplies and rebel fighters cross into Syria daily, and anti-government forces use Turkish territory as a refuge, avoiding Syrian troops and receiving medical treatment on the other side of the border. Turkey also serves as a haven for defectors and deserters from the Syrian army. Syria won’t ignore this, and it seems the only thing that has stopped the Syrians from sending military expeditions across the border (as they have with Lebanon, which serves a similar function for the rebels) is a desire to avoid open, armed conflict with Turkey.
Turkish involvement means NATO involvement, and there have already been meetings in Brussels about how to deal with the situation. Though there still doesn’t appear to be much political will for NATO troops intervening in Syria, any further engagement between Syrian and Turkish forces could easily become a pretext for NATO action if that were to change. The merits of intervention aside, that would be bad. Russia was frustrated by what it saw as unilateral NATO action in Libya, so any NATO involvement in Syria, for which the Russians have been a vocal ally, would not go down well in Moscow. I’m not saying we would have a Europe-in-summer-of-1914 situation (I don’t think Russia would go to war to protect Assad), but who knows? There are no workable political options at the moment (no matter how hard Kofi Annan tries), and the level of intensity on this conflict only seems to go up. And I’m sure the upcoming elections in the US and Israel will cool down the rhetoric.