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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.

October/09/2012

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