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SEMİH İDİZ > Turks watch as their country moves into uncharted territory

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Turkey is entering uncharted territory with the United States in Syria. This is one of the key messages to come out of the visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Istanbul over the weekend, during which the two countries agreed to form “a common operational structure” in order to expedite the end of Bashar al-Assad. 

Working in overt and covert ways to topple regimes considered unsavory, and helping opposition fighters to this end, have been a trademark of Washington’s for decades. But this kind of effort, especially if it is aimed at an Islamic country in its region, is new for Ankara. 

In fact, Turkey has always moved with extreme caution in the face of regional crises, trying not to get embroiled in situations that could end up turning into political quagmires for itself. There is, therefore, a deep irony in the way things have turned for Ankara in Syria. 

Gone are the days when the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government caused concern in the West with steps that suggested it was moving Turkey away from its traditional Western orientation in foreign policy toward and Islamic one.

One of the main indications of this new orientation of Ankara’s at the time was considered to be the close ties it was developing with Damascus and Tehran, in apparent defiance of a West that was clearly rattled by this. This time it is Iran’s turn to be rattled. 

Prime Minister Erdoğan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, are seen now by Islamists to be bedding with what they consider as “the devil’s instrument on earth,” namely America, in an effort to try and topple a regime in an Islamic country. 

But their “Syrian gambit” has turned into such a matter of political prestige for Erdoğan and Davutoğlu that it seems the irony of where they have ended up is not something they are dwelling on very much at the moment. Their focus, instead, is on toppling al-Assad; especially for Davutoğlu who acts as if his whole political future depends on this.

But if a commentary piece in the Arabic news portal Albawaba is anything to go by, Davutoğlu’s popularity could be waning rapidly in the Arab world also even though his esteem there was so high until not so long ago. 

“The most important question that remains unanswered on the Turkish political and media scene is this: Until when will Erdoğan continue to bear the burden of the flawed policy of his foreign minister, which has cost Turkey dearly and at all levels?” Albawaba asked on Aug. 8.

“Here, it seems that Davutoğlu is determined to overthrow the regime in Syria; otherwise, Erdoğan will dismiss him and put an end to his diplomatic career, which he wanted to exploit for future political calculations,” the popular Arabic news portal added.

Then there is the situation in Turkey itself where the government’s Syria policy is causing concern on a number of levels. Given that all international opinion polls indicate Turks as the most anti-American of all people, the close coordination between Ankara and Washington is even creating public sympathy for the al-Assad regime in Turkey, reprehensible as that regime may be. 

Then there is the “Kurdish factor.” The prospect of some sort of autonomy for the Kurds in northern Syria, should that country fall apart is causing fear because of the encouragement it will give Kurdish separatism in Turkey, where the protracted bloody war with outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorism continues. 

The Erdoğan government has indicated that it will oppose any Kurdish entity in northern Syria, militarily if necessary. But many in Turkey believe that Washington, which is considered to be a prime benefactor of the Kurds, would not allow this. 

Given this overall picture, Turkey does indeed appear to be moving into uncharted territory, and all the indications are that the Turkish public is watching matters unfold with growing consternation.

August/14/2012

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