Syria as part of Turkish domestic politics

Syria as part of Turkish domestic politics

Turkey has been engaging in diplomatic traffic with its southern neighbor Syria since the domestic conflict there started last year. For months, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in order to convince him not to use military power against his own people, who are asking for more freedoms. After deciding that there was no hope for a change in al-Assad’s attitude, the Turkish government took a sharp turn and embraced the Syrian opposition.

First, thousands of refugees began to seek shelter in Turkey. Then the Syrian National Council, representing a considerable portion of the Syrian opposition, opened its office in Istanbul. After that, Syrian army officers began to turn up, and a Free Syrian Army declared its presence in Turkey.

The Turkish government is heavily involved in the international efforts to persuade al-Assad to step down; backing the Arab League plan and the Kofi Annan initiative is part of that. Yet Davutoğlu said last week that words will no longer be enough to stop al-Assad, and an action plan is needed. Turkey is going to host the second of “Friends of Syria” conference in Istanbul April 1.

The Turkish government worries that Syria might be the end of the Arab Spring story, because an oppressive regime could be allowed to survive thanks to Cold War-like balance politics; Russia and China, permanent members of the United Nations, stand firm to support the al-Assad regime as their last ally in the region. Iran’s support for al-Assad is a given fact already. So the Istanbul meeting will be key to determining the Turkish government’s Syria policy.

But the Turkish opposition is heavily involved in Syrian politics; the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has been hosting a Socialist International (SI) conference in Istanbul March 23-24, on the present and future of the Arab Spring. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said in his welcoming speech that he was worried that the Arab Spring could turn into an Arab Fall, because he could not see much that will benefit those striving for more freedoms and rights for the working classes in the new administrations of those Arab countries where revolts have taken place.

Kılıçdaroğlu has been criticizing the Erdoğan government of being too much involved in the domestic politics of Syria, and of going beyond defending the human rights of the Syrian opposition. In return Erdoğan has hit a bit below the belt and pointed out the similarity between the faiths of Kılıçdaroğlu and al-Assad; the former being a Turkish Alevi and the latter a Nusairy, the Syrian version of the same sect. Al-Assad’s Nusairy minority has been ruling Syria via the Baath party for decades.

A few days before the SI conference, Erdoğan said that Kılıçdaroğlu was trying to denounce the Turkish government to foreigners. The CHP leader replied saying that he will continue to tell the truth about Syria to anyone who wants to hear it.

It is a rare occasion in Turkish politics that parties openly clash with each other on a foreign policy matter. The war in Iraq in 2003 was the last major example, and now there is the civil war in Syria. It is not clear yet whether Iran (another neighbor of Turkey) will be the third example of domestic political fight.