Trouble down the Tigris

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Having worked hard to improve relations during the last decade, the Turkish government is now on the frontline in international efforts to rid Syria of Bashar al-Assad.

Wary of a long, violent conflict and the disintegration of the Syrian state across its southern border, the Turkish government was at first restrained in its condemnation of the Assad regime’s disproportionate use of violence against civilian uprisings. Turkey’s most heavily Kurdish areas lie adjacent to the north of Syria and Iraq, and the last thing it wanted was an ungoverned, volatile area next-door which the Kurdish insurgents Ankara has been fighting for decades could use for training bases and recruitment. However, by October last year Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s dynamic Prime Minister, had discarded diplomatic convention and threatened Assad’s forces in no uncertain terms.

“Those who attempt to test Turkey’s deterrence, its decisiveness, its capacity, I say here they are making a fatal mistake,” warned Erdogan in a rousing speech in Istanbul after the Turkish army had responded to shelling of its territory by Syrian government forces. [1]

This verbal salvo marked a low-point in official relations between the two countries, the culmination of a rapid deterioration which Turkey had tried at all costs to halt. The majority of members of the international community will have had nothing to gain whatsoever from positive relations with Assad’s regime, but Turkey is not among them. After decades of dismissing Syria as a backwater with nothing to offer, Ankara was made to sit up and take notice of the dangers emanating from the ancient country when irrefutable evidence emerged in the mid 1990s that Kurdish militants were being harboured in Syrian territory, including the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is widely considered a terrorist organisation) leader Abdullah Öcalan. The situation so enraged the Turkish government that then Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz threatened to “poke out the eyes” of Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. [2] Turkey assembled troops on the border, sparking frantic efforts by Egypt and others to avert conflict.

When Erdogan’s AK (Justice and Development) party swept into power ten years ago, hopes rose of a better relationship. Bashar had taken over from Hafez in Damascus and took steps to sever ties with the Kurdish militants, and the AK party placed harmony with its turbulent neighbours at the centre of a new, responsible foreign policy. The younger Assad became the first Syrian president to officially visit Turkey in 2005, and ties improved so much that the two governments established a Strategic Cooperation Council in 2009, just before the advent of the Arab uprisings.

Fast forward 4 years and Turkey, while extremely worried about what the ramifications of a post-Assad Syria would be, is actively working towards a rebel victory across the border. Erdogan’s zeal in this endeavour has left him pretty well isolated among those calling for Assad’s removal. While the geographically distant USA, European and NATO governments have thus far offered little more than public condemnation of the killing, Turkey is directly affected by the civil war and thus has a genuine stake in the outcome. There are now up to 200,000 registered refugees in Turkey and tens of thousands more waiting to enter, which has forced the government to spend $700m providing basic resources. [3] Infrastructure in its border towns has been damaged by shelling, and worse, Turks have died; four were killed when a car bomb exploded near the border in February. [4]

It is widely believed that the Free Syrian Army has been receiving weapons and equipment from the Turkish government, but it appears this has not done much to tilt the balance in favour of the rebels. Erdogan and Ahmet Davutoglu, his energetic foreign minister, are acutely aware of this and are thought to have voiced their frustrations about the lack of Western involvement to new US Secretary of State John Kerry on his first visit to the Middle East. They are unlikely to be satisfied by the half-measures of an understandably reluctant Obama administration, or by the recent announcement of support from the UK in the form of armoured vehicles. Such steps will not end the conflict quick enough for Turkey’s liking.

Meanwhile, desperate Syrians pour over the border; trade and business suffer in Turkey’s impoverished south-east, and the army remains on alert. As Syria disintegrates and the terrible human toll becomes more apparent, the international community will likely respond to the call and move decisively to topple Assad. For now, though, Turkey will continue to fight its own battle with the dictator.

Joshua Landis, specialist on Turkish politics at the University of Oklahoma, summed it up in an interview with Al-Jazeera News: “This is a major headache for Turkey, [but Turkey] doesn’t really have a choice, it has to deal with a situation right on its border, so the rest of the international community can afford to sit back and be cowardly.” [5]

Article by Thomas Leighton. Edited by Ben Mackay.

Notes

[1] Ece Toksabay (2012), ‘Turkey Warns Syria More Strikes Would be Fatal Mistake,’ Reuters Online: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/05/us-syria-crisis-idUSBRE88J0X720121005 (accessed 06/03/13)

[2] (1998), ‘Middle-East Hopes for Turkey-Syria Settlement,’ BBC News Online:  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/191228.stm (accessed 07/03/13)

[3] Al Jazeera and Agencies (2013), ‘Number of Syrian Refugees Hits Million Mark,’ Al Jazeera English Online: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/03/201336155511798120.html (accessed 07/03/13) 

[4] AFP (2013), ‘Syria’s Assad Vows to Resist as Blast hits Turkish Border,’ The Daily Nation Online: http://www.nation.co.ke/News/world/Assad-vows-to-resist/-/1068/1691614/-/155w8qfz/-/index.html (accessed 07/03/13) 

[5] Inside Syria (2012), ‘Is a Turkey-Syria Conflict Inevitable?,’ Al Jazeera English Online: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidesyria/2012/10/201210774959651250.html (accessed 14/02/13)