Turkish military capable of setting up Syria safe zone, Turkish analysts say / Henry Barkey

17 October 2012 / AYDIN ALBAYRAK, ANKARA – As the civil war drags on in Syria, the necessity of setting up a no-fly zone on the Turkish-Syrian border has been expressed by Turkish officials numerous times, but an American analyst claimed that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) were not experienced enough to set up a no-fly-zone.

“Turkey can’t make it, with the main reason being it doesn’t have any experience. When is the last time Turkey got into a war?” said Henri Barkey, a lecturer from the department of international relations of Lehigh University in the US, when asked by the Radikal daily on Monday why he thinks the TSK is not up to the job.

But Turkish analysts don’t agree. “Saying the TSK is not experienced clearly demonstrates that Barkey doesn’t know the TSK,” said Mete Yarar, a consultant on security policy for television channel A Haber, in comments to Today’s Zaman. Maybe not in (setting up a no-fly zone), but as a preventive defensive force, the Turkish Air Forces [THK] have already taken part in past no-fly zone operations. The THK participated in operations against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and in the relatively recent operation in Libya. High-level Turkish officers served in these operations.

“The TSK has both the capacity and the experience to perform such an operation, but it would also have a huge cost, financially and in terms of losses, for Turkey,” Erdoğan Karakuş, a retired three-star general from the THK, told Today’s Zaman.

Syria is believed to have a sophisticated air defense system, and one estimate is that 50-60 fighter jets would be needed to protect a no-fly-zone over Syrian territory. “Even US fighter jets would need to perform hundreds of sorties to suppress that system,” said Barkey, who has also served in the US Department of State as a Turkey and Middle East analyst, implying that he does not believe the THK strong enough to cope with the Syrian air defense system. “As it’s been developed against Israel, the Syrian air defense system is really much stronger than you would imagine,” Barkey added during the interview.

But Yarar, who is a retired military officer, finds Barkey’s argument that the air forces would be needed to maintain a no-fly zone on the Syrian border to be baseless. “You wouldn’t necessarily need the air forces to set up a no-fly zone in Syria, in contrast to cases in the former Yugoslavia and Libya,” he said, noting that “even artillery could do the trick.”

Turkey shares a border with Syria, and with artillery capable of shooting within a range of 40 kilometers, Turkey could easily fire on Syrian territory near the border when needed. In the case of the NATO interventions in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, and in Libya, air forces were needed because the pockets of resistance were in the innermost areas of those countries. Turkish jets, without needing to enter Syrian territory, would also be able to deter Syrian jets and ground forces from going near the border. Turkish fighters are equipped with air-to-surface guided missiles with a range of up to 180 kilometers, and that means they could easily hit targets in Syria while remaining over Turkish territory, should Syrian forces attempt to violate the safe zone. And, with its air defense system alone, Turkey would be in a position to enforce a no-fly zone of more than 10 kilometers into Syria from the border.

Syria is said to have nearly 5,000 air defense missiles and a strong air defense system. But for Karakuş, who does not agree with Barkey’s comments on the capability of Turkish jets in dealing with Syrian air defenses, it is not numbers that count. Karakuş is of the opinion that a large number of the missiles in Syria’s hands are only short-range, and short-range missiles cannot possibly be effective against Turkish jets, as Turkish jets are equipped with longer-range missiles and so would not need to enter into the range of those short-range missiles.

He also says that THK jets are in good technical shape. “Turkish jets have the ability to wage electronic warfare and to neutralize missiles launched against them,” Karakuş said, claiming that it would be have been much more difficult for Syria to down the Turkish jet over the Mediterranean in June had the jet been on a combat mission.