Turkey’s Syrian debacle

Turkey’s Syrian debacle

As this piece was being written, the U.N. Security Council had not yet heard Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s appeal in New York yesterday for a U.N. sanctioned safe zone to be established in Syria to protect refugees. Those close to the matter, however, felt his appeal would get nowhere, since Russia and China oppose the idea, which they consider a violation of Syrian sovereignty.

The impression one gets is that other members of the Security Council who have sided with Turkey on Syria are also hiding behind the Russian and Chinese objection, since they do not appear to be prepared to enforce such a safe zone militarily, as it no doubt will have to be. This leaves many looking to Ankara to act, but this is a hollow expectation since Turkey is not capable of doing it on its own for a host of objective reasons.

Mr. Davutoğlu’s appeal yesterday can also be looked on as a desperate one since the number of Syrian refugees will most likely be over the 100,000 predicted as a “worst-case scenario.” Ankara has said that is the limit for it, but it is hard to see what can be done if desperate people continue to arrive with their families.

In the meantime, unease is increasing in Turkey, and particularly in Hatay province, where people are unhappy not just about the number of refugees, but also over the question of whether PKK elements, or “Jihadist militants,” are also coming into Turkey in the guise of refugees, as many media reports suggest they are.

Locals in daily contact with the Syrians also complain increasingly about unruly behavior. For example, there are reports about Syrians eating at restaurants and buying from shops and leaving without paying, telling the proprietors “to send the bill to [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan.”

What compounds the dilemma for Erdoğan and Davutoğlu is that they are faced with responsibilities now that will also turn international attention on Turkey. First there is the welfare of the refugees, especially given the fact the both Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have consistently said those fleeing Bashar al-Assad can come to Turkey.

But this will require well-guarded camps that are kitted to meet the requirements of thousands of families in terms not just of housing and medical facilities, but also in terms of all the necessities of life for a minimum humane existence. Recent rioting in one of the camps suggests that Turkey is not fully prepared for all this.

Then there is the security issue that cuts both ways, meaning that Turkey not only has to ensure the security of people in the camps, but also its own security, given the fact that it is not clear exactly who is coming across the border, or who has come from other parts of the world in order to use Turkey as a staging ground for the “Jihad against Assad.”

There are many indications that Hatay province has in fact become something of a gathering spot not just for radical Islamic fighters, but also for the secret services of all those countries in the West, and Israel of course, that are concerned about Islamic terrorism. These are not things the Turkish public is prepared to stomach.

The upshot is that Turkey faces a potential debacle such as it has not had before due to Syria. The question is how much of this is the result of the government’s hasty and overambitious Syrian policy, and how much of it is the product of an inevitable chain of events.

Clearly, Turkey would have faced a refugee crisis anyway, as it did after the first Gulf War for example, but critics feel that it should not only have moved more realistically from the start and allowed international agencies in much earlier, but also that it should have had a more regional approach which did not alienate Iran and Iraq and millions of Shiites in the Middle East.

Not having done that, Turkey is forced now to issue futile appeals as the refugee problem grows and the Syrian crisis deepens along sectarian lines. In other words, the government is facing a crisis for which it has no answers, and a public at home that is growing increasingly uneasy over this. If this is not a debacle, then what is?