The Syrian Crisis and Turkey

After Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Syria is fast becoming one of the bloodiest domino pieces of the Arab Spring which has shaken the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf. Yet, the Syrian crisis is a little different in the sense that it could have much greater and more tragic implications for its neighbourhood – namely, in Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. However, at the moment, the unrest seems to have had direct effects mainly on Turkey which has found itself in a very difficult situation.
When the riots in Syria first started they were relatively small scale and so today’s mass turnouts could hardly have been predicted. At the outset of the protests (mid-March) the Turkish response was fairly calm, although everyone knew what was at stake if the crisis were to escalate. What Turkey did make clear though was its opposition to any intervention in the area. Specifically, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said that any international intervention must be avoided because it could bring unwanted results, while Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said that if the international community were confronted with massacres in Syria, then Turkey should undertake a leading role in any response. In the same spirit, Turkey asked for more time to be given to Syria in order for it to implement the reforms promised by President Bashar al-Assad. In the meantime the Turkish government sent humanitarian assistance to its border with Syria to ease any problems caused by the influx of refugees.
Despite the Turkish government’s outward calm, it soon realised the instability that this crisis could bring within its borders, and gradually changed its position. That is, of course, because of the great strategic importance of Syria and its Kurdish population to Turkey in terms of the broader Kurdish problem that Turkey is facing internally and externally. The intensity of the Syrian/Kurdish problem together with the international presence in the region would be a threat to Turkey’s national interests and territorial integrity and so it is understandable that Erdogan’s government would want to take the lead in managing any response.
As it turns out the crisis has not remained limited. Over 1,400 people have been killed and the Syrian refugees that Turkey hosts now number more than 10,000. Furthermore, Bashar al-Assad’s army has been battling protesters and attacking Syrian villages very close to the Turkish border. As the situation with respect to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) worsens and the refugee numbers in Turkey rise, the Turkish government has started to lose its cool. The possibility of a further escalation of the crisis in major civic centres like Damascus, would likely lead to a substantial increase in the flow of refugees. Such a scenario, which could destabilise Turkey internally and give opportunities to the Kurds, is what Ankara fears the most. That is why Turkish authorities are considering the establishment of a safety zone inside Syrian territory to prevent such a development.
The danger though is very real given that the tipping point where a revolt against a regime becomes a civil war seems very close in Syria. That is when the military becomes divided – and marked the decisive point in Egypt’s crisis for Mubarak to step down, as it did in the Libyan civil war we are now witnessing. It has been reported that Syrian military units “clashed with each other” over orders to “crackdown on protesters”. Indeed, this may only be the tip of the iceberg given that we do not know exactly what is happening in Syria, since all foreign media have been prohibited.
It is worth noting that the US and UK share Turkey’s concerns. After all, another war in this geopolitically sensitive region, between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Armenia is the last thing both the West (particularly the US) and Turkey want. It is true, however, that the current situation challenges in the hardest way Turkey’s doctrine of “zero problems with neighbours” and its “soft power” diplomacy. The newly re-elected government under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and PM Tayyip Erdogan are facing a very difficult situation which could determine whether Turkish foreign policy since 2002 when the AKP was first elected has been successful or not. No matter how difficult the task is for the Turkish government, it seems determined to closely monitor the developments not only in Syria but also in the Middle East more generally. Such intentions have been made clear after foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced his Middle East tour, which will also include Syria.
The good relations between Turkey and Syria of late have undoubtedly become strained as a result of the recent crisis. It is clear that no one, neither the West nor Turkey, want a further escalation although the Syrian regime does not seem to be about to give up anytime soon. However, Turkey seems ready to take the appropriate measures in order to maintain the stability in the region and more importantly within its borders. A military confrontation between Turkey and Syria or a rapprochement between Turkey, Israel and the US should not come as a surprise given that Turkey will use all necessary means to achieve its goal of achieving national cohesion and securing its territorial integrity. At this stage of the game for Turkey, the stakes are too high for half measures
Zenonas Tziarras
Posted on Global Politics, July 2, 2011.
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