Erdogan’s Problems with the Neighbors

Jerusalem Post, 12/10.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayep Erdogan, in a speech this week said that Turkey was ‘not interested in war – but we’re not far from it either.’ This rather confused phrase perfectly sums up the dilemmas in which Turkey’s policy toward Syria and the Syrian revolution has placed it.

Turkish vacillation on the Syrian issue in turn reflects broader western indecision. This stands in stark contrast to the determination of the Assad regime’s international backers, and in no small measure is the reason why the regime continues to defy reports of its imminent demise.

When the ‘Arab Spring’ began in 2011, Turkey looked to be a natural beneficiary from it. If the Arabs were looking to combine elections with a greater presence for Islam in public life, the ruling AKP in Turkey could present itself as a model for the achievement of this.

So when the uprising began in Syria, the Turks enthusiastically threw themselves into the fray. Ankara hosted and sponsored the foundation of the opposition Syrian National Council. The notional leaders of the Free Syrian Army established themselves on Turkish soil.

There is evidence also of a much more active Turkish role, with Ankara offering facilities for the training of rebel fighters, and probably also supplying arms.

The west, seeking to avoid direct involvement in the Syrian civil war, was pleased to contract out the central role in aiding the Syrian opposition to Turkey (along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar.)

Many western analysts predicted the early fall of the Assad regime, and Erdogan was presumably looking forward to sponsoring a new, friendly, Sunni regime in Damascus.

The problem is that Assad has held on. The result is a bloody civil war, which is currently at stalemate.

The dictator has been aided by useful friends. Russia and China have blocked any effective response through the United Nations Security Council.

Iran and its proxy Hezbollah have provided know-how, money ($5 billion from Teheran since the start of the revolt) and muscle.

Assad also appears to have shrewdly revived his relations with the Kurdish PKK guerrilla group, which has renewed its military campaign from northern Iraq into South-East Turkey.

The US and the main EU countries, have made do with verbal condemnation of Assad, economic sanctions and some limited covert aid.

Facing the unwelcome prospect of confronting the powerful coalition assembled behind Assad alone, Turkey has been obliged to swallow a number of insults from its neighbor to the south.

The downing of a Turkish F-4 fighter over the Mediterranean in June was the first of these. However, the killing of five civilians in the town of Akcacale earlier this month represented the gravest deterioration yet.

Turkey responded by shelling government troops across the border in Syria, for the first time since the outbreak of the uprising. Rather than desisting, Syrian government forces have lobbed mortar shells across the border on a number of additional occasions, though without more fatalities so far.

Turkey has beefed up its presence on the border, sending 25 additional F-16 fighter jets to its air base in Diyarbakir, in the south east of the country.

There was widespread international condemnation of the Syrian shelling of Akcacale. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen this week pledged that Ankara can rely on the support of the alliance.

Rasmussen would not be drawn on the nature of NATO contingency planning vis a vis Turkey and Syria, however. There is little reason to think that the western determination to stay out of Syria will be moved by the latest events.

This places the Turkish government in a difficult situation. There is little enthusiasm among Turkish public opinion for an incursion into Syria. Turkish intervention in the Syrian civil war would cost lives, and lead to an uncertain outcome.

The opposition CHP party has already begun to make political capital out of the situation. The party argues that Erdogan’s high-profile aid to the rebels has created problems for Turkey by incurring the anger and enmity of the Asad regime, while achieving little of note.

And then there are the Kurds. Should Turkey intervene into Syria, it is likely that the Kurdish guerrilla group would step up its campaign against Ankara, in line with its apparent de facto rapprochement with Damascus.

So Erdogan is faced with a series of unattractive alternatives. He can make a bold move against Assad in the event of continued Syrian shelling. But this will mean entering the Syrian quagmire with no meaningful western support, widespread public skepticism at home, and the prospect that such a move will trigger a fearsome renewed PKK paramilitary campaign.

Or, he can continue to soak up Syrian insults, and risk being exposed as a hapless and indecisive leader, whose bark is worse than his bite.

As of now, the Turkish government appears keen to fudge the issue. The government sought and approved parliamentary approval for possible intervention. But its spokesmen then hastened to make clear that this approval did not necessarily mean that any intervention was imminent.

The Turks have now forced a Syrian passenger airliner to land, on suspicion that it was carrying ‘illegal cargo.’

This is a calculated humiliation for the Syrians. But unless Damascus chooses to further up the ante, gestures of this type will probably form the extent of the Turkish response at this time.

Parliamentary mandate in hand, the Turkish prime minister now presumably hopes that the tit for tat fire across the border can be brought to a messy and unconclusive end.

The apparent rudderlessness of Turkish policy on Syria is itself a product of the more general western confusion.

It was always highly optimistic to suppose that the partial aid of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the Syrian rebellion would be sufficient to defeat a regime backed by Russia, Iran and China.

The west remains resolutely determined to stay out of further involvement in Syria. Turkey wants to support the rebels, but without direct engagement. The result is that Ankara looks likely to accept ‘rules of the game’ on the border which will mean a tit for tat Turkish response to Syrian shelling, rather than anything more decisive, for as long as large scale loss of life among Turkish citizens is avoided.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s