By Daniel Dombey
The Financial Times
Opposition to Assad has left an emerging powerhouse increasingly at odds with neighbours and global allie
As the civil war in Syria raged, Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed the Middle East to Istanbul. Addressing clerics from across the region at a specially convened event this month, Turkey’s prime minister attacked President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, denounced sectarianism and called on his audience to support the struggle of Arab peoples to be free.
Mr Erdogan cut a commanding figure in a sea of bishops’ mitres and imams’ caps, and his voice rang out as he compared the killing in Syria to the battle of Karbala in AD680, one of the foundational events of Shia Islam.
But he spoke at a time when Turkey’s own position is lonelier and more difficult than seemed likely just a few months ago.
“We have taken everything on our shoulders,” complains one Turkish official. “But this is not our problem; it is an international problem.” Two others complain with the same phrase: “We are at our limit.”
In recent days, the country has closed border schools for fear of bullets flying in from Syria; it is straining to host more than 100,000 refugees; and has endured deadly attacks by emboldened Kurdish rebels. All are signs that the poison let loose by the fighting in Syria – which has claimed more than 20,000 lives – has seeped across the countries’ 900km border.
Other neighbours may be more grievously affected by the bloody conflict. Lebanon is peculiarly vulnerable to inter-confessional strife. Jordan has more Syrian refugees than Turkey yet fewer resources.
But in a peculiarly painful way, Turkey’s championship of the campaign against Mr Assad has left it out on a limb. For a country whose ambitions have soared in recent years, this is a difficult comedown.
As the fighting has worn on, the country has found itself at loggerheads with neighbours, at odds with allies and beset by significant challenges on its own territory. Its predicament is not just an illustration of the instability being exported by Syria and the rise of sectarianism: it also reveals how regional and domestic vulnerabilities can weigh down even as dynamic a rising power as Turkey.
In Washington, Turkey is seen as having a central role in bringing Mr Assad down. But this has become a heavy burden for Ankara to bear. “The Turks have been dragged into the conflict in a way that they were not expecting,” says a senior international diplomat. “They have done an incredible job in hosting refugees. But what they are facing now is close to a disaster.”
“President [Barack] Obama prefers to go down the path of a long drawn-out struggle, like Afghanistan in the 1980s,” says Bulent Aliriza at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank. “But that’s not good enough for Turkey. It does not want to be like Pakistan, which became the forward base for the Afghan rebels. If that were to happen it could confront all the pressures that Pakistan faced and from which it has never recovered.”Just three or four years ago, the vaunted strength of Turkey’s foreign policy was good relations with nearby countries. It prided itself particularly on ties with Syria and Mr Assad. But, officials say, they have had to rip up such talking points. Today, relations with neighbours to the south and east are toxic – with Syria but also with Iran, Damascus’s main backer, and withIraq, which this year declared Turkey a “hostile state”. Turkey is also deeply frustrated with its old allies to the west, particularly the US, which declined to back a push for a buffer zone in Syria during highly charged debates at Nato and the UN.
Indeed, internal strains are beginning to show: polls say policy on Syria is opposed by up to two-thirds of voters. Residents of the south-west, some of whom, like Mr Assad, are Arabic-speaking Alawites, complain about the influx of refugees and, they say, rebel fighters. At present 84,000 Syrians are in Turkish camps, with 20,000-30,000 elsewhere in the country and thousands more pressing in on the border, kept out of the country until space for them has been found.
Exports to Syria have fallen from $1.6bn last year to just $200m for the first seven months of 2012. Syrian tourists, who previously totalled 1m a year, have stopped coming. “What is really significant is the indirect impact,” says Mehmet Simsek, finance minister. “When there is fire in your neighbourhood, it doesn’t help.”
Most gravely of all, the fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), listed as a terrorist group by the EU, US and Turkey itself, have stepped up attacks amid the chaos in Syria that has strengthened a like-minded organisation of Syrian Kurds. In one rocket attack last week, the PKK killed 10 Turkish soldiers and wounded 70.
In domestic debates, opposition figures have furiously attacked Mr Erdogan, suggesting Ankara stay neutral in Syria. The prime minister replies that it would be unthinkable and indefensible to do so.
But officials and analysts, both Turkish and international, say Mr Erdogan has gone further than necessary, pointing to his campaign for a buffer zone and Ankara’s backing for the rebel Free Syrian Army. Initially, Mr Erdogan resisted calling for Mr Assad to go. But after months of failed negotiations last year he took the rhetorical lead in the campaign against the Syrian leader.
Diplomats say this reflected not just Mr Erdogan’s sense of betrayal by Mr Assad, with whom he once holidayed. He was also haunted by the memory of the Turkish flag being burnt in Benghazi last year, after he was slow to support the intervention in Libya.
In subsequent months Turkey raised the stakes, particularly after Syria shot down one of its jets, without warning, in June. Days later, it asked Nato’s governing council to look at options for a buffer zone in Syria – despite being asked by allies not to. Nato officials worried this would be seen as preparation for war; instead the alliance emphasised its existing obligations to defend Turkey.
Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign minister, took the idea last month to the UN Security Council – again, with no success. Turkish diplomats pointedly noted that Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, failed to attend. “How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and deliberate mass targeting?” Mr Davutoglu asked at the time.
. . .
Despite a flurry of US visitors in recent weeks – which as well as Mrs Clinton included Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and David Petraeus, CIA chief – Mr Erdogan has broadcast frustration with Washington. His officials suggest Mr Obama might take a more active position should he win November’s election, despite US insistence to the contrary. “We are all waiting for the US to act, as always,” says the Turkish official. He argues that the longer the world waits, the more radicalised Syria will become as foreign extremists train and indoctrinate homegrown fighters.
But US officials say a buffer zone would require a no-fly zone to protect civilians from an air attack. Enforcing this would require an attack on Syria’s air defences, which are more formidable than Libya’s were.
With thousands of troops deployed against the PKK, and much of the army’s leadership recently imprisoned for plotting against his government, Mr Erdogan has made clear he has no appetite for unilateral intervention. “We would not accept being part of what would be a trap, doing something without the UN,” he told The Washington Post last week.
Yet Ankara’s role as the chief campaigner against Mr Assad – acting as a conduit for fighters and weapons, as well as championing a buffer zone – has drawn Damascus’ ire. Turkey denies arming the FSA but activists say it is a principal route for the arms that reach the rebels and that Ankara at least facilitates such shipments. Possibly in response to unwelcome scrutiny, the FSA announced at the weekend that it had shifted its base from Turkey to Syria.
At the same time relations with Iran, which is overtly aiding the regime the rebels are seeking to overthrow, are growing ever more tense, with Revolutionary Guards in Syrian territory.
“Let’s call a spade a spade – we’ve got a proxy war in Syria,” says Mr Aliriza.
Turkish officials suggest Syria or Iran are behind attacks in the PKK’s increasingly ferocious campaign. Many diplomats warn of the danger of Turkey’s role being seen through the prism of Sunni-Shia divisions in the region, not least because of the strong presence of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in the political and armed opposition to Mr Assad.
Mr Erdogan’s words about Karbala and his attendance at the interfaith conference in Istanbul seemed intended to soothe such fears, but the prime minister has previously accused the opposition leader, who is from Turkey’s non-Sunni Alevi Muslim tradition, of religious sympathy for the Alawite Mr Assad. Other leading figures from the ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development party warn that Turkey is facing an antagonistic “Shia bloc” to its south. Some experts worry that Iran could stoke instability in post-Assad Syria.
Mr Erdogan’s allies insist that ultimately Turkey will benefit from being not only on the right side but also in the lead, and that sooner or later – perhaps in a matter of months – Mr Assad will go.
In the meantime, Turkey continues its lonely campaign for forceful UN intervention.
“No one can escape this question, no one can escape discussing it; it will come back again and again,” says the Turkish official. “The fire is there, even if you close your eyes. In our case, we are not spectators; we are next to the fire and it is burning us.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012. You may share using our article tools.
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