Mission impossible for Turkey?
When the first indications of another wave of the Arab Spring began to appear in Syria, Turkey was quick to cool down Western excitement over the possibility of intervening there in order to speed up the results of the revolution through military means, as had been doen in Libya. The reason was simple: For Turkey, Syria was not like Libya.
Actually, it had not been easy for Turkey to make the necessary maneuver in the case of Libya, either. Only days before the rebellion started in Libya, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan had received a human rights award from Moammar Gadhafi himself and bearing his name in Tripoli. It was a chance for Ankara to show that there had been no shift in the axis of Turkish foreign policy; no more than two weeks after Erdoğan’s acceptance of the Gadhafi award, the Turkish Parliament approved a government motion to send the air force and navy to contribute to the NATO force in Libya. Turkish approval of hosting NATO’s early-warning radar site as a part of Missile Shield defense system came soon after.
But Syria was different. First of all, it was not thousands of kilometers away, it was a neighbor, and the neighbor sharing not only the longest (910 kilometers) land border with Turkey, but also a lot of cultural history. After some traumatic years, when Hafez al-Assad harbored outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan during his armed campaign against Turkey, Ankara has been on relatively good terms with his son Bashar al-Assad. Erdoğan and al-Assad were calling each other brothers and having family summer vacations together. Relations had reached the level of joint cabinet meetings and the mutual lifting of visas, following which merchants in Gaziantep used to go Aleppo, 120 kilometers away, to have their lunch kebabs. They returned when the riots started in Damascus.
That was why Turkey was trying to cool its Western allies down from engaging in a Libya-like campaign, as were bitter memories of two consequetive wars in another neighbor, Iraq, which damaged the Turkish economy and resulted in the PKK setting up military camps there.
To be fair, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu spent weeks and months trying to convince al-Assad to reform his system and stop his security forces from opening fire on protestors, who were not yet armed to the teeth.
It was morally acceptable for the majority of the Turkish people to defend the human rights of their Syrian neighbors, as they tried to make their voices heard under an oppressive regime. It was partly acceptable to support the Syrian opposition, who could not find a way to be represented in Damascus. But when reports began to accumulate that Syrian armed groups were being trained in Turkey, and intelligence services from the Americans to the Saudis were providing them with arms via Turkey, eyebrows began to be raised.
When two parliamentarians from the main opposition Republican Perople’s Party (CHP) were denied access to a refugee camp in the border province of Hatay, Davutoğlu explained that it was a camp especially for defected Syrian security officers, and entry was by government permission only. Now Hatay is listed as the headquarters of the Free Syrian Army on their websites, and Davutoğlu has left for New York to test the waters at the UN for a possible no-fly zone between Hatay and Aleppo, with additional difficulties such as the support of Iran, the Russian navy base in Syria, and a strong Russian-trained air defense in Syria.
Al-Assad says he needs some more time to crush the opposition, and Turkey is trying to make his job difficult, but the scratches Turkey gets along the way may take a long time to heal.