Turkey’s growing Syrian headache

Turkey’s growing Syrian headache

President Gül, Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu are ratcheting up the rhetoric against the regime in Syria, bringing in some heavy verbal artillery and calling for “humanitarian corridors” to be established for people trying to escape al-Assad’s brutality.

There is, however, no concrete plan on the table as to how this should be achieved. It is even questionable whether it can be done, since it is clear that for such a corridor to be meaningful it will have to be enforced militarily. That was the case after the First Gulf War, when Turkey was instrumental in having a no-fly-zone established north of the 36th parallel in Iraq in order to protect fleeing Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s wrath.

This then, is where the “Achilles’ heel” of the whole Syrian debacle lies for Ankara and the international community. The fact is that there is no individual country or group of countries prepared to get involved militarily against the Syrian regime. Neither is the fact that Russia is against such involvement the key obstacle. 

The international community showed in Bosnia, albeit tragically belatedly, that such involvement can be organized despite attempts by Moscow to block it. However it is clear today that no one has an appetite for any new military engagement in the region, and certainly not in a situation that is marked by unforeseen pitfalls. 

This is, of course, enabling al-Assad to get away with murder against the country’s predominantly Sunni population, which is no doubt what also lies behind the mounting anger in official circles in Turkey against Damascus. And yet there is also a glaring fact pertaining to Turkey which is highly telling.

While Israel’s often brutal involvement in southern Lebanon and Gaza have made thousands throng in the streets in Turkey in the past, we do not see the same happening in the case of Syria. Most demonstrations against what is transpiring in that country are generally organized by Syrian refugee or émigré groups in Turkey.

There is even an undercurrent of support for al-Assad, especially in areas bordering Syria where large Alevi communities live. And then there is the perennial issue of anti-Americanism that comes into play. The more voices are raised in America suggesting that Turkey, “as a key and powerful regional player” should do something against Assad, the more suspicious Turks get about any military involvement in Syria. The simple fact is that there is a widespread notion in all levels of Turkish society that Western countries that do not want to get burned are pushing Ankara towards the fire in Syria. Many also fear, rightfully I believe, that if Turkey did interfere militarily in this crisis it would be akin to poking at a hornets’ nest.

When one also factors in the innate social admiration in Turkey for any regime, irrespective of how reprehensible it may be, which stands up to America, it becomes clear why it is also difficult for the Erdoğan government to act against al-Assad with active U.S. participation.

As it is, the opposition is using the fact that Turkey allowed the radars for NATO’s US-led missile defense shield project against Iran with great success, especially when the government says, unconvincingly, that this system is not directed against Iran, and that the electronic intelligence obtained through it will not be shared with Israel.

As they say in Turkish, even the deaf sultan knows by now that this is not true, even if the government insists it is. The bottom line here is that if there is military involvement in Syria of any sort, it could be that al-Assad finds he is getting unexpected moral support from within Turkish society, which clearly would make the situation messier than it already is for the Erdoğan government.

Put another way, Syria continues to be a growing headache for Turkey with no end in sight for the foreseeable future.

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