Over the last two weeks, the Syrian regime has directed mortar and artillery fire at Turkish villages. The US ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, might have stated, in response, that the United States stands behind its ally, Turkey, however it sees fit to protect itself. Instead, he confidently declared that Washington sees no possibility of war between Turkey and Syria. What the ambassador couched as a benign prediction was, in fact, an obvious instruction to Turkey.
Many have wondered whether the Assad regime's shelling was meant to provoke Ankara. A cartoon in the daily al-Hayat depicted the Syrian president thumbing his nose at Turkey, while shells were fired from his fingers.
Assad's aggression is an expression of his contempt not just for Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan but, in addition, the United States. He sees, on the one hand, Iran rallying all the members of its alliance network in the region (Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militants, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki) to prop him up and to isolate their common adversary, Turkey. On the other hand, Assad sees the US leaving its Turkish ally and the Syrian opposition alone in the cold.
Assad correctly interpreted the US position and concluded that he could attack Turkey with impunity. Washington not only had no interest in coming to the defense of its NATO ally, but also did not want to see any escalation from the Turkish side.
Reading Obama's preferences is easy for Assad. The US president has been advertising his inhibitions for many months. Last March, when the Turks came to plead with the administration to take the lead on more assertive measures in Syria, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, shot them down repeatedly. The Turks tried again in August and were once more rebuffed.
The more the US has signaled its intent, no matter what, to stay out of the game in Syria, the more aggressive Assad and his Iranian patrons have become.
Since as early as last summer, the Iranians have been showing the Turks that they would use the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) against them. Tehran has shown its ability to reach a tactical alliance with the PKK in order to exploit one of Ankara's principal vulnerabilities: the Kurdish issue. They first released the PKK's commander, Murat Karayilan, in July of last year. A year later, Iran was allowing the PKK to use its soil to launch operations against Turkey.
But the most brazen attack came in late June, with the shooting down of a Turkish F-4 jet over international waters off the Syrian coast. The Turks were enraged, but once again, word immediately came from Washington that left no doubt about the Obama administration's preferences. In comments to the Wall Street Journal, an anonymous senior US defense official not only did not endorse the Turkish account of what happened, but also seemed to lend credence to the Syrian version.