Turkey’s role in bringing together the Syrian opposition has made progress but as Turkey gets drawn into its own internal politics as an extension of the Syrian violence, its current role as a hesitant hero is perhaps the safest place for it to remain.
As the violence in Syria continues it poses real humanitarian questions for the rest of the world. Intervention is becoming more and more likely, but as Richard Armstrong wrote, it’s isn’t as simple as that. But intervention is what some Syrians are asking for. Last week, leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood Mohammad Riad Shakfa declared that Syria needs outside protection and Turkey is the only nation he believes can offer it. This places Turkey in a compromising position. Turkey may have strived to be a regional player but now that the moment has arrived it finds itself playing the role of a hesitant hero.
Turkey was uneasy in the Libyan intervention before finally getting involved due to its role in NATO. The reality of the Syrian situation is far different from that in Libya, despite the recurring theme of massacre. Libya may have been easy for the rest of NATO to get involved in; there were significant gains to be made and Libya as an isolated state allowed for almost unanimous intervention. Nevertheless, Turkey was wary. Its economic desires and ‘zero problems’ ideology meant that it played a far less active role in the intervention and merely moderated involvement, rather than having troops on the ground.
Syria, however, poses an entirely different question, not only for Turkey but for the rest of the world. Syria is not an isolated nation in the region. Its background with Iran and Iraq add a security factor that cannot be ignored, never mind the support al-Assad is receiving from Russia and China. Turkey shares its longest border with Syria and has much to lose. Syria and Turkey’s history has been fraught with tension. Upon the election of the AKP, Erdoğan and al-Assad had cultivated a close friendship in order to mitigate the tension and threatened military action that plagued the 1990s. For this very reason Turkey has been cautious in intervening. Along with vainly trying not to antagonize any parties as it tries to fulfil the ‘zero problems’ fantasy.
Moreover, the question of Turkey’s Kurdish population adds a hidden dimension to the conflict. The Kurdish question is one that forever afflicts Turkish politics. As a marginalized minority the Kurds have exacerbated tensions throughout Turkey’s history, but this has heightened in the last couple of years of the AKP administration. Syria has often used this internal conflict to its advantage, harbouring Kurdish rebels to be used as a bargaining tool. It was not until the arrest of Öcalan, the founder and leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), in 1998 that Turkey and Syria began more diplomatic talks. It seems however that we may see history repeat itself with the more prominent use of the PKK in the Syrian uprising. As the al-Assad government draws the PKK further in, expanding its military front the more of a taunt it becomes for Turkey. Turkey might get dragged into military intervention – not due to humanitarian needs, but because of its own agenda. This can only worsen sectarian violence in both nations – the Kurds have already threatened military action if Turkey intervenes.
The AKP has done much in its decade in power to readdress Turkey’s position in the region and globally. Turkey’s reluctance as such is understandable; however, its vagueness is inexcusable. For example, Turkey’s initial refusal to declare Syrian refugees as asylum seekers but as guests displayed imprecision in Turkey’s tactic. Since then, Turkey has begun to take what appears to be a harder line, closing its Damascus embassy and stopping Turkish Airlines flights. Furthermore, talks between Syrian opposition parties held in Istanbul may help in ensuring unified political dialogue. Military intervention does not have the same guarantee in Syria as it did in Libya – thus political dialogue is the only option to warrant as little life lost as possible. Turkey’s role in bringing together the opposition has made progress on this front but as Turkey gets further drawn into its own internal politics as an extension of the Syrian violence, its current role as a hesitant hero is perhaps the safest place for it to remain.