The Syrian war becomes a Turkish political issue

The Syrian war becomes a Turkish political issue

Turkey is planning to go to the United Nations to garner for international support for the hosting of Syrian refugees, as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said yesterday. This is a normal thing, if it is considered that the number of refugees in Turkey since the beginning of the civil war in Syria has reached 80,000, with some 7,000 waiting at the border gates, as agencies report. Davutoğlu said last week that Turkey could have difficulty sustaining its sheltering of refugees if the numbers exceed 100,000, using its own national resources. Turkey’s disaster control agency, AFAD, revealed yesterday that the cost of hosting the refugees could reach a sum of $300 million, with the building of new camp sites.

The cost of the Syrian refugee camps is not only limited to their financial cost. They have already stirred a number of debates in Turkish politics. The first of these regards the security dimension. It is not only the activity of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on the Syrian side of the border, as well as the Turkish side, but that is part of it. The PKK has escalated its armed campaign and extended it from the Iraqi border -- where it has military bases -- to the Syrian border, since Turkey decided to support the Syrian opposition against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The al-Assad regime and the PKK have a history of cooperation some three decades in length, after all. The other security aspect regards al-Qaeda and other Saudi-supported Salafi and Jihadi groups. This issue surfaced when Osman Karahan, the former lawyer for the al-Qaeda bombers involved in twin attacks in Istanbul in 2003 targeting two synagogues, the British Consulate and an international bank, was announced to have been killed by Syrian security forces in a clash in Aleppo where he was volunteering as a fighter. Later on, some other jihadis’ names appeared in media. There are concerns that this is a two-way street: If Turkish jihadis could cross into Syria from Turkey, why not the other way around?

Secondly, Turkish public opinion, which in general welcomes the hosting of refugees on humanitarian bases, is disturbed by reports that Turkish intelligence is collaborating with its American, British, French, German and Saudi counterparts to provide military and training assistance to the armed groups involved in the Syrian civil war. Two parliamentarians from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) were denied access to a refugee camp in Hatay province near the Syrian border last week. Yesterday, Davutoğlu said that that particular camp was for military defectors, but members of parliament were welcome to visit “civilian” refugee camps; endorsing the opposition concerns.

Third, the international dimension becomes more complicated day by day. Turkey has now become part of an international coalition forming to impose a partial no-fly zone (the area from Hatay, over the Mediterranean Sea to Aleppo is one of the areas being considered) over Syria, in order to reassure the Syrian people that Syrian jets and helicopters will not strike them, so they will stay where they are and not flee to neighboring countries. That model was applied in 1991 to protect Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s attacks. However, circumstances are quite different for Syria now. First of all, Iran gave indirect support to the operation in 1991; now Iran has sworn to stand behind al-Assad until the end, and has been accused by Turkey of being behind the latest wave of PKK attacks. And secondly, the Soviet Union was about to collapse in 1991, but Russia now is powerful, and has a military base in Syria; the only one in the Middle Eastern region.

All of these factors make the Syrian crisis a matter of Turkish domestic politics, which makes the Tayyip Erdoğan government uncomfortable in implementing its foreign policy.