Turkey's Not Messing Around Anymore

But does Prime Minister Erdogan have a plan for what comes next in Syria?

ISTANBUL – On June 22, a stricken Turkish RF-4 Phantom reconnaissance aircraft splashed down in the Mediterranean, brought down by anti-aircraft fire from the Syrian military. The pilots have yet to be located, and are most likely dead. The incident has deepened the rift between Turkey and Syria, former allies whose partnership deteriorated along with President Bashar al-Assad's brutal 15-month crackdown on his own people. Although this incident alone will not push Turkey into direct military confrontation with the Syrian regime, it has put the country in a position where one more incident will force it to, in the words of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, "teach those who dare to test the limits of its might."

Beyond the basic fact of a downed Turkish jet, Ankara and Damascus disagree over the essential details that led to the incident. Turkey insists that the plane was in international airspace when it was fired upon and had only crossed into Syrian airspace briefly, an event that President Abdullah Gul described as "routine." The Syrian regime, meanwhile, insists the Phantom was shot down well within Syrian territory -- a claim that backs up the regime's claim that the uprising, which the U.N. estimates has left more than 10,000 dead, is being guided by foreign powers.

Erdogan responded with typical anger over yet another Syrian provocation. In a June 26 address to a meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara that was attended by Arab diplomats, he announced that any Syrian forces approaching the countries' 565-mile border would be considered a threat and that any infringement of the border would be met with force. The Syrian regime presented a "clear and present danger," Erdogan said.

Meanwhile, Erdogan's top aides publicly pushed the message that the rules of the game had changed. Ibrahim Kalin, one of the premier's top foreign-policy advisors, expanded on the statement on Twitter: "The rules of engagement for the Turkish armed forces have been changed and expanded," he wrote. "Any military element approaching Turkish borders from the Syrian side will be considered a direct military threat."

A Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, backed up this newly aggressive rhetoric. With the continued bloodshed in Syria and, now the shooting down of the Turkish Phantom, Ankara is no longer playing "Mr. Nice Guy," the official said.

Erdogan's words immediately raised the question of whether a de facto safe zone -- a policy option long broached as one way Turkey could hasten the Assad regime's demise -- was being created to aid opposition forces, yet neither the prime minister nor his advisors specified what "approaching Turkish borders" meant.

Turkey's understanding of how the incident played out has its increased outrage at Assad. The Turkish official told me that the pilots accidently entered Syrian airspace for five minutes, most likely miscalculating their flight path by incorrectly identifying a pair of mountain ridges toward which they were supposed to fly. They were informed of their mistake by Turkish radar station operators and returned to Turkish airspace. The pilots were then asked to correctly repeat their maneuver, which was meant to test Turkey's domestic radar capabilities, the official said. They returned to international airspace, looping around and flying back toward Turkey, parallel to the Syrian coastline, when they were shot down near the Syrian city of Lattakia, according to the official.

Turkey intercepted the Syrian radio communications during the incident. There was "no panic" in the voices of Syrian forces, the Turkish official said. It appeared they had been previously instructed to take such actions and proved themselves aware it was a Turkish aircraft, referring to it as the "neighbors'" plane.

There is no denying that Turkey has emerged as a regional hub of anti-Assad activity in the Middle East. In the past year, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) has established an office in Istanbul, with a section dedicated to military coordination. The nominal leadership of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), along with an estimated 33,000 Syrians who fled the spiraling violence inside their country, are based in 10 Turkish camps in the border region. The U.S. State Department has also established an office in Istanbul to help train activists and provide non-lethal equipment to the opposition.

In the past weeks, reports have also claimed that Turkey's National Security Organization (MIT), its intelligence agency, has transported multiple shipments of weapons to rebels along the border. Turkey's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Selcuk Unal denied the claims, but one Syrian activist involved in transferring the new weapons from MIT to the rebels along the Syrian-Turkish border confirmed the shipments. "For myself, it was not my aim," said the activist, who had previously told me he preferred nonviolent measures to bring down the Assad regime. "But it's generally what everyone wants. It's sort of a victory."

Turkey is arguably doing more than any other country to help the Syrian guerrillas. But if Erdogan wants to convince the world that now he really means business, he's going to have to overcome skepticism from Syrian rebels themselves -- not to mention his domestic political opponents.

Abo Nidal, a 39-year-old FSA fighter, is one such skeptic. I first met him last December on a muddy hilltop in the Syrian village of Ain al-Baida. His FSA unit had raised the Turkish flag next to the green, white, and black standard of the Syrian opposition -- but now he didn't sound sure that Erdogan would match his actions to his words.

"With all due respect for Mr. Erdogan, the Syrian Army has more than several times crossed the border with helicopters and shooting. They shot a Turkish police station, they shot it from a distance," he said. "If Erdogan will help us, all we need is anti-aircraft weapons and anti-tanks weapons. We will respond and we will revenge this airplane."

Abo Nidal said that since joining the FSA he had fought only with a Kalashnikov. However, his unit had recently received rocket-propelled grenade launchers from the FSA, he said.

Mahmoud Mosa, a Syrian activist from the northern Syrian town of Bdama, echoed the lukewarm response to Erdogan's speech: "We have heard stronger threats to Syria from Erdogan before. We know that the Syrian forces are less than 300 meters from the Turkish borders in Ain al-Baida. We need deeds, not words."

The polls are also against Erdogan if he pushes for a military confrontation with Syria. According to a recent survey from the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), a Turkish think tank, 56.2 percent of respondents oppose an intervention in Syria while 40 percent say they do not support any diplomatic or military intervention. Just over 11 percent would like to see Turkey invade Syria. And only 7.9 percent of respondents support arming the FSA.

Faruk Logoglu, the deputy chairman in charge of foreign relations for the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), has signaled that he would oppose more aggressive action against the Assad regime. "The Turkish government has taken sides in this crisis since the very beginning," he told me. Instead of engaging with the Assad regime and the opposition on equal footing, he said, the AKP had simply chosen the opposition as a favorite.

While Logoglu condemned the violence in Syria, which he described as mostly being carried out by regime forces, he faulted Erdogan for "not listen[ing] to the full spectrum of voices" in Turkey. He also implied Erdogan was positioning himself as a Sunni standard-bearer for Western efforts to roll back Shiite Iran's influence in the Middle East.

"I am not pointing the finger at Mr. Erdogan and saying he is crusading for the Sunni leadership in the region," he said. "But most of his actions add up to such quote-unquote accusations or allegations, as you like."

The Turkish government's conditions for unilateral intervention in Syria have also yet to be met. Since Syrian refugees began fleeing into southern Turkey, Turkish officials have has made clear that there are two possible scenarios in which they'd ponder military action: First, if there were a mass influx of thousands of refugees that threatened to overwhelm Turkey's capabilities. The second scenario is if there were a large-scale massacre of defenseless civilians by pro-Assad military forces in the border area.

Yet even more important than the change in rules of engagement, the jet incident has confirmed Ankara's belief that Assad is rapidly losing control of the country. "It's a matter of time," the Turkish official said. "This guy will go."

On that point, at least, Syria's rebel fighters are inclined to agree. "He is losing his believers and the people who trust him more and more," Abo Nidal said. "There are defections every day. We think that is why they shot the Turkish plane."

Whether Ankara is prepared to give the Assad regime a final push remains to be seen, however. Asked if Erdogan's warning the Syrian military away from the border was creating a de facto buffer zone, the Turkish official demurred. "As a responsible government we had to think of everything," he said. "But frankly we haven't decided on anything yet."


No Country for Armed Men

Pakistan is in such bad shape, even the generals don't want to stage a coup.

LAHORE – It was a sign of the misguided times in Pakistan that on June 5 -- a day when the country faced massive rolling electricity blackouts, a crashing economy, civil war in two out of four provinces, violence from the Himalayas to the Arabian Gulf, and a cratering relationship with the United States -- the Pakistani army decided it was the best moment to test fire a cruise missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads. It was the fifth such test since April, supposedly a morale booster for a wildly depressed public, a signal to India that Pakistan would not put its guard down despite its problems, and a message to U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who had arrived in Delhi that morning, that Pakistan could not be bullied.

As Pakistanis baked in the sweltering heat without electricity or running water, facing an increasingly jobless future and little hope for improved education or health care, most people ignored the missile tests. India had been carrying out similar rocket tests, but has not faced anything close to Pakistan's economic malaise.

Then last week, in the most recent denouement of a long-running political crisis, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gailani was sacked by the Supreme Court -- raising all sorts of legal and constitutional problems. Many people termed the court's action a constitutional coup because parliament is the only body that has the power to dismiss a prime minister. Although a new prime minister belonging to the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) will soon be in place, the ongoing political uncertainty is only likely to further escalate Pakistan's institutional meltdown.

All of Pakistan's major institutions of state and governance are now at loggerheads. The Supreme Court, the PPP government led by President Asif Zardari, the opposition parties, and the media have spent the last weeks preoccupied with a flurry of corruption scandals while hurling accusations against one another. So far only the army has come out clean as a whistle -- although corruption charges hover over many retired generals.

For the Pakistani army -- the world's most experienced in creating just the right atmospherics before mounting a coup the country is in a perfect storm for what would be its fifth military takeover. All the institutions of the state are discredited. Pakistanis have no faith in the politicians and there are many public doubts about democracy. Economic collapse and relentless extremist violence have taken a huge toll in life and property, while the breakdown of relations with the West has isolated Pakistan internationally like never before.

Except that this time -- considering the mayhem it faces and the lack of solutions it can offer the nation (especially after having irked the United States and NATO) -- the army is unlikely to mount a coup. Instead, the army would like to see the present PPP government be ousted by the Supreme Court, to be followed by an interim government that would oversee general elections. In this scenario, both the Supreme Court and the army could join hands to bring corruption cases against large numbers of politicians while the tough economic reforms demanded by the IMF, which the current civilian government has refused to carry out, can be implemented. This could mean an indefinite extension of the interim government and delayed general elections.

The ruling elites' failure to carry out reforms is at the root of Pakistan's troubles. The army and successive governments have long lacked the courage or will to make the necessary tough decisions, from making peace with India to blocking the growth of extremism to raising sufficient revenues from the landed gentry. In the 1990s, when the rest of the world was enjoying the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War, along with the spread of global markets and traded goods, Pakistan's economy remained stubbornly feudal. Indian cities like Bangalore and Mumbai raced to build call centers, car companies, and software giants, while Pakistanis struggled to provide electricity for their aging textile mills. Even Bangladesh and Sri Lanka surged ahead, opening their economies to policies building trade and investment and introducing new industries and agricultural crops as Pakistan fought its covert wars.

Meanwhile, the army immersed itself in conflict, first in Afghanistan supporting the mujahideen in the 1980s, then the Taliban in the 1990s, and then the jihadists in Indian-held Kashmir -- many of whom were actually Pakistani militants from Punjab. The idea of improving relations with its neighbors was as anathema to the army as carrying out basic economic reforms was to the political elite, from increasing taxes to ending subsidies to state-owned institutions that have bankrupted the country.

Pakistan was thus thoroughly undermined from within even before it made the unwise decision to shelter escaping Afghan Taliban in 2001 -- the army's bid to maintain its options in the face of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Using Islamic extremists as a tool of foreign policy was shown as a bankrupt policy after 9/11, but Pakistan continued to pursue it both in Afghanistan and Kashmir, blindly refusing to see that the world had fundamentally changed.

Pakistan is now paying the full price. Some 35,000 Pakistani citizens have been killed by the Pakistani Taliban, by related militant groups, or in bitter sectarian warfare that has gone unchecked. Extremists have targeted Hindus and Christians but also Muslim groups like the Ahmedis, Ismailis, Memons, and Shia. In Quetta, the capital of strife-torn Baluchistan, ethnic insurgents are blowing up buses; in Karachi, the breakdown of law and order is fueling the growth of armed militias in the slums based on ethnic, criminal, or political loyalty.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration's misguided handling of Pakistan over the past year has only convinced Pakistani hardliners that they were right. In their eyes, Washington's provocative cozying up to New Delhi, the peace talks it started with the Taliban without including Pakistan, and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan it planned without adequate consultations with Islamabad have all served notice that America's hostility toward Pakistan is unrelenting. They believe it's the Americans who have got it all wrong and now face a military debacle in Afghanistan. The irony is that Pakistan has always wanted a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and a U.S.-Taliban dialogue it could dominate. Now that all it wished for is actually coming true, Pakistan is sitting on the wrong side of the fence, estranged from the United States as neighbors like Iran maneuver to take advantage of the U.S. withdrawal and Pakistan's absence from the scene.

Of course, the United States has its own hardliners. The most dangerous step some in the U.S. Congress and the administration are now advising President Obama to take is declaring the Afghan Taliban network led by Jalaluddin Haqqani a terrorist group. That could lead to Pakistan being declared a state sponsor of terrorism because of Haqqani's safe havens there. Such a designation would turn many more Pakistanis into anti-American extremists. By taking such a step and refusing to apologize for the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by U.S. helicopters last November, the United States would only be setting the scene for further meltdown in Pakistan. Ending the Haqqani presence in Pakistan requires political dialogue from Washington and Kabul, not threats.

The rock-bottom relations with the United States distract Pakistan from its real problem: its spiraling domestic crises. Pakistan desperately needs leaders who can bring a new narrative to the debate, who can effectively criticize the military for plunging us into this ideological backwater for the past 30 years. Pakistan needs inspirational figures who can expose the corruption and ineptness of the politicians and demand economic and fiscal reform so that we can rebuild our country.

Any new narrative requires us as Pakistanis to take ownership of our problems rather than blaming the usual suspects: the United States, India, and Israel. So far, at least, there are no such leaders on the horizon. The best hope for Pakistan may be the promising growth of a young people's movement led by poets, pop musicians, human rights groups, artists, bankers, and bureaucrats who communicate on social networks and talk constantly about the need for change.

Sixty percent of Pakistan's 180 million people are below the age of 25, so these young people have the majority on their side. The creaking political establishment has little knowledge of this class of people or their aspirations for a better future. It is these young people who need to develop a fresh narrative about Pakistan's history and where it is going -- a narrative that does not put the army and nuclear weapons at center stage but puts Pakistani citizens first, once and for all.

S.S. MIRZA/AFP/Getty Image