Atatürk's Republic

Following Turkish News, Politics, Arts and Culture

Syrian Intermission

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Turkey’s profile in international affairs has been growing over the past two years, largely due to the events of the Arab spring.  Articles referencing Turkey usually belong in one of two categories: the “Turkish Model” as a template for new Arab democracies and the ongoing crisis in Syria.  Last week, Turkey helped to negotiate temporary truce for the duration of the Eid al-Adha holiday.  Unfortunately, this truce lasted only about a day and fell through Saturday with both sides renewing hostilities.

The now-broken truce is just the latest point of involvement for Turkey in the Syrian conflict.  Near the beginning of the insurrection  Prime Minister Erdoğan called the crisis in Syria “the equivalent of internal politics for Turkey.”  Erdoğan and Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have spent significant time and effort to improve relations with Syria since the AK Party came to power.  A free trade agreement, joint military maneuvers and what appeared to be a genuinely friendly relationship between the two heads of state made Turkey’s relations with Syria the show piece of its “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy.  However, years of diplomacy unraveled in a matter of weeks after the onset of protests in Syria.  The Turkish government and ordinary Turks alike were repulsed by the Syrian army’s brutal attacks on its own citizens.  Davutoğlu and Erdoğan were clearly offended that President Assad refused to listen to their council.  The Turkish government severed relations with the Assad government in November of 2011.

The Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey began with a trickle soon after the crisis started.  In early summer 2011 the number of Syrian refugees was estimated in the hundreds.  Now it has topped 100,000 and has become a contentious domestic issue in Turkish provinces along the Syrian boarder.  Efforts to isolate the refugees in camps and away from the local population have begun to break down.  More and more resources in Turkey are being utilized or commandeered by the refugees and the Turkish locals have increasingly come to resent their presence.

Most critically, military incidents and tensions between Turkey and Syria have nearly come to a breaking point.  Almost immediately after refugees began arriving in Turkey, rebel army activities were organized with the tacit approval of Turkey.  More openly, Turkey hosted meetings of the political leaders of the opposition.  Turkey’s passive support of the Syrian opposition has been instrumental in sparking a number of violent cross-boarder incidents involving members of the Syrian opposition and the Syrian military.  The downing of a Turkish fighter jet in international airspace after it had allegedly crossed into Syrian territory marked time Turks became directly involved in the violence.  Turkey held back on any direct retaliation after this incident, but did not show the same restraint after a mortar fired from Syria killed 5 Turkish civilians at the beginning of this month.  Turkey retaliated with multiple days of shelling after the incident and moved weapons, planes and men to the border.  Shortly after, in a largely symbolic show of power, Turkey forced a Syria-bound Russian jet to land in Ankara and searched it for weapons.  This measure was justified by the arms embargo it had placed on Syria a year ago.

Turkey clearly has a huge stake in the outcome of the civil war in Syria.  Despite this, the government has been hesitant to become directly involved without international support.  Unilaterally intervening would give further ammunition to those who have accused the AK Party government of aspiring toward Neo-Ottomanism.  More importantly, the vast majority of the Turkish public is against further military engagement in Syria.  Turkey has reached out to, and criticized, the UN multiple times in an effort to persuade the international community of the need to take action on Syria.  Erdoğan has also put great effort into building an alliance with the newly democratic Egypt.  He visited Egypt over a year ago to promote “Turkish style” democracy and rode high on a wave of personal popularity.  Soon after he predicted that Turkey and Egypt would become the two power centers of the region, an “axis of democracy.”  Now, with the new Egyptian government in place, Erdoğan is trying to make this alliance a reality.

There are a few predictions that can be made about the Syria and Turkey in the months ahead.  Violence in Syria will continue much as if the truce had never happened.  Turkey will follow the path it has been on for the past year and a half, becoming more and more actively involved on the side of the rebels.  Whether this involvement will eventually amount to Turkish forces being deployed in Syria depends on two factors: outside support and cross-border violence.  If the UN (read: the US), NATO (again, the US) or Egypt can be persuaded to support Turkish military action, the Turkish government may very well go against public opinion and send troops to Syria.  However, the government may not have to defy it’s own population if Syria continues to make violent breaches into Turkish territory.  A number of small incidents or a single egregious one may persuade the Turkish public that intervention is necessary.  Even if neither of these two scenarios comes to pass, Turkey may not come away from the Syrian conflict unscathed.  If Syria perpetrates an egregious act of violence against Turkey, and Turkey fails to intervene militarily, they in effect acquiesce to breaches of its territorial sovereignty and the killing of its citizens.   Such a passive responses to violations of sovereignty will inevitably damage Turkey’s reputation as a regional leader.  In this scenario  rather than becoming the “model” in a new era of Muslim democracy, Turkey instead may end up playing a secondary role to the Arab states.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

October 29, 2012 at 1:51 am

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