SEMİH İDİZ > Turkey’s Syrian dilemma takes a dangerous turn

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Syria appears to be a problem for the Erdoğan government rather than for Turkey, none of whose vital interests were initially at risk due to the crisis there. Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu banked on an early departure for Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Because this did not happen, both have now made this issue a matter of honor.

In doing so they have also engineered a situation that compromises Turkey’s security interests. Staying true to their initial course, however, both now accuse anyone who has serious doubts and fears about the government’s Syrian policy of caring nothing for the Syrian people, and of being overt or covert supporters of the Baath Party. But al-Assad and the Baathist regime were just as cruel towards their people when Erdoğan and Davutoğlu were cultivating his friendship in defiance of the West only two years ago. Not only that, but the Hama massacre of 1982, in which somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 Sunnis were killed by the al-Assad family and their regime, was already part of history.

Put another way, the past brutality of the same regime did not appear to stir Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s conscience much only two years ago. This is why the humanistic arguments they are utilizing against their critics now simply does not wash. It is clear that their simple calculation was that al-Assad would go the way of Mubarak or Ghadafi, and Syria, where the population is predominantly Sunni, would fall neatly into Turkey’s sphere of influence.

Given what happened instead, however, the honor of being the first Turkish government to take the country to war with a predominantly Islamic neighbor may fall on the Erdoğan administration. The authorization the government received from Parliament last week to engage militarily with Syria if necessary has also raised the stakes in this regard.

The government has to retaliate, of course, and appear uncompromising, in the face of the lethal shell and mortar fire aimed at Turkish territory from Syria. Nothing short of this would be acceptable to the public. This should not, however, be taken as an indication that Turks endorse the idea of all-out war with Syria. People are also aware that the shells aimed at Turkey could be acts of willful provocation designed to get Ankara embroiled in a military misadventure. There is also the fact that justified and legal retaliation is different from all-out war.

This situation points to one of the key problems for Erdoğan and Davutoğlu: The simple truth is that Turks do not want war with Syria, a fact that has been corroborated by a host of opinion polls. The worst thing for any government is to prosecute a war that does not have the full support of the people. In authoritarian countries and dictatorships this does not matter, because the regime can either kill or imprison its opponents. This is not easy to do in a democratic country such as Turkey, however, where any attempt to come down on opponents to war in an authoritarian manner will clearly be met with mass protests.

As it is, thousands of Alevis were out over the weekend in Ankara protesting the government’s Syrian policy, which could not have gone down to well among the hardcore Sunni elements within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

What makes matters worse for Erdoğan and Davutoğlu is that they have failed thus far to activate the international community to act militarily against the al-Assad regime. It is even doubtful that Turkey would receive the all-out military support of its NATO allies should it go to war with Syria. Bellicose towards the Damascus regime as these allies may be, none has thus far indicated an appetite for becoming militarily involved in that country.

In short, the government’s Syrian policy is like a rudderless ship adrift in stormy seas. How Erdoğan and Davutoğlu can continue to insist that this policy was and is the correct one, given that most of the public does not agree, is, however, the greatest mystery of all.


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Gary Clark

10/9/2012 7:59:37 PM

Bravo Murat Bey a wonderfully written article. As an Englishman married into a Turkish family I fear for the future of my family and friends living in the paradise country that is modern Turkey.Erdoğan and Davutoğlu appear to be making up policy as they go along, stumbling blindly into a conflict that realistically could herald the onset of WW3. Alongside his clandestine activities to rip up the Turkish constitution, using Ergenekon as a smokescreen Erdoğan has shown himself to be totally inept

ilker avni

10/9/2012 7:56:35 PM

@Recep Ozel Barzani is training the Syrian kurds to fight Assad.I have allways said the tide will turn when the Kurds join in instead of sitting on the fence,trouble is the pkk will not join Barzani side and a fight could take place among the kurds groups.Kurds and Turks has joined forces.Barzani is backed by America,thats why Maliki has turned to Russia for weapons,a major war is about to take place in Syria and Iraq.Syria and Iraq will sliced up for a Kurdish state.

Blue Dotterel

10/9/2012 7:34:44 PM

The mortar used to attack the Turkish town of Akcakale is a design specific to NATO and was given to Syrian rebels by Ankara, according to Turkey’s Yurt newspaper's Editor-in-Chief, Merdan Yanardag. If true, the "rebels" killed five Turkish civilians with an AKP supplied mortar. The Turkish people should hold the AKP responsible for this massacre, and bring them to account for their war crimes and crimes against humanity.

ilker avni

10/9/2012 7:31:44 PM

@Halo dayi You are spot on,this is only the begining,with Iraq buying up arms from Russia and Iran preparing for war why i wonder?Iranian troops are in Syria along with Hezbollah and North Korean advisers according to the Haarezt,they are adviseing on how to deliver the chemical weapons which has been moved to twenty different locations.. @Rimon tree What about Israel ? you forgot to mention Israel..Anyone old enough to remember the seventies,will know the games played out in the ME.

Ismail Hijazi

10/9/2012 6:21:40 PM

For all those who allow their shortsightedness to overcome their common sense; remember doing the right thing is never easy. Yes it is not easy to walk into immediate danger for the sake of long term safety, but it has to be done. Allowing Iran and it's regional cronies to win this struggle will put the future of the whole region if not the world in jeopardy. Imagine what would have happened in WWII if the world did not stop nazi Germany?

bagas 06

10/9/2012 3:44:51 PM

This is only the begining. The situation likely to be worsen even Assad falls. The government can not predict the future and this is the real concern.

MR Somalia

10/9/2012 3:10:23 PM

Turkish brothers, five months ago I did tell you that Syria issue will only backfire on Turkiye and today that is exactly what happened. You were too busy crying after NATO after some old jet and isolated yourself in the region and now even NATO abandoned you on Syria. Shame akhis...shame. The right thing to do would have been to chillax and no make an American scrap metal (Jet) such a big fuze. Lets see what the rest of the scrap metals do for you now.

Recep Ozel

10/9/2012 1:14:10 PM

Great article! What is worrying is that Turkey is so alone in the Syrian mess and a civil war in Syria is the last thing we need. Already there are reports that Barzani (our PMs favourite person at the AKP conference) is training 15,000 Syrian Kurds to fight for a Kurdish state in Syria. Why are we pushing ourselves into this mess? Surely, to cut a deal with Assad to fight the PKK (like before), and work for stability in Syria would be better for Turkey?!!!

Rimon Tree

10/9/2012 11:47:17 AM

As for the "humanitarian" hypocracy, which you pointed out very well, Turkey is in "good" company of almost all the Western countries. They all were good friends with the Arab dictators as long as it suited them and now they are "good friends" (remember: "Friends of the Syrian People") with the Islamists and Jihadists, who will be taking Assad's place sooner or later. And Turkey, being the most afflicted in this conflict, fell into the chaos trap as well. And the Western countries will not help!

Shah Hamdan

10/9/2012 11:32:17 AM

Nice article. Turkey is facing multidimensional problems. Its inner problems are immense. Now Turkey is divided on sectarian basis never happened before. Now Alevi are protesting in favor of Syria and against Turkish adventures. AKP is messing up problems each passing day and failed in the damage control.
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