The depth of Syria tension in Ankara

The depth of Syria tension in Ankara

It becomes a more visible fact each day that the Syria calculus of Ankara is not working as smooth as it had been on paper last August, following a visit by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Then came the Turkish government’s sharp turn denouncing Assad (who used to be called as ‘my brother’ by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan) as a dictator who kills his own people and opening its borders to those escaping the Baathist regime in Syria and throwing political support to Syrian opposition groups, including some armed ones. 

But things started to turn sour earlier than expected, partly because the immediate ‘implosion’ of the al-Assad regime has not come as quick as the ones in Tunisia, Libya or Egypt. That is partly because the Baath regime is well organized beyond the limits of the ruling religious minority of the Nusayri sect (a version of Alewites in Turkey, definitely different then Sunni Islam), possibly more ruthless then the regimes hit by the Arab Spring and the Syrian opposition is often too fragmented. 

Perhaps more important than those factors are the two international factors that helped al-Assad carry out his fight, leaving tens and thousands of his own people dead and ruining cities and towns. The first one is the decisive stance of U.S. President Barack Obama to not get involved in any direct military operation until the presidential election in early November. The second one has been the equally decisive stances of Russia and China to veto (three times) any UN Security Council resolution to put more pressure on Damascus.

Talks have now been going on for weeks in an effort to form an international coalition to impose a partial no-fly zone over Syria to provide a protection zone for scared Syrians in an effort to cap the large influx fleeing to bordering countries; mainly Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon. A similar no-fly zone operation by the U.S., UK and France was started in 1991 against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and had been implemented from Turkey for years, causing much public reaction because it encouraged Kurdish secessionism.

A similar debate is going on nowadays. The armed campaign of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has escalated since it was obvious that the civil war in Syria would not be intervened in externally in military terms. Extended clashes are going on in southeast region bordering Iraq and Iran (PKK has bases and military presence in both countries). Turkish security forces and the PKK are extending its acts of terror toward the Syrian border. The car bomb in the city center of Gaziantep last week killing 9 and wounding 68 is an example to that.

Fethullah Gülen, the leader of the Turkey-based influential religious community living in the U.S., suggested publicly that the government’s intelligence agencies should work harder to prevent terrorist attacks.
A new problem has arisen together with that of new refugees. Four Turkish citizens killed in the Syrian civil war, volunteered to fight against the Syrian regime apparently had links with the Al Qaida cells operating in Turkey and were involved in the 2003 Istanbul bombings as well. Turkish people, especially Alewites living in bordering Hatay province complain that they were threatened by Salafis or Jijhadis coming from Syria as refugees. A delegation of main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) parliamentarians wanted to inspect the refugee camps amid allegations by local officials that armed groups are given military training in the camps.

And there is the Iran factor. Iran whose Revolutionary Guards have claimed links to a series of assassinations in Turkey in the late 80s and mid 90s, give open support to Syrian regime. And in the meantime Israel, whose relations with Turkey has hit rock bottom, give increasing signals that it might attack Iran before the U.S. elections. 

Under those circumstances, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu made a correction over the weekend, stating he did not mean to give a particular time for the end of the al-Assad regime when he answered a question about that as ‘within months or weeks’ in a television interview Friday night.

It is expected that President Abdullah Gül, who is in hospital now because of a chronic ear problem, will be back in office and make a clarification of the situation in the Victory Day celebration on Aug. 30.