Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Jan. 30 once again made comments comparing the Republican People’s Party (CHP) to the Syrian Baath Party. One can only assume that by uttering such a reference to Turkey’s main opposition party, Erdogan hopes the public will believe that the CHP supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is, like Assad’s Baath Party, incapacitated and unconcerned about its own people.
Prime Minister Erdogan finds himself boxed in by his Syria policy, both in domestic politics and in dealing with a growing regional and humanitarian crisis, writes Tulin Daloglu.
January 31 2013
The civil war next door is about Syrians killing each other — not a conflict between Turkey and Syria — but it has spawned a domestic battle in Ankara. Surely Turkey would have kept its borders open for people fleeing to safety regardless of the party in power in Ankara. In addition, the compassion that Erdogan espouses toward the Syrian people on behalf of the Turkish nation is that of all Turks, including those in opposition. Thus, the problem between Erdogan and the CHP likely stems from the prime minister’s displeasure with opposition accusations that his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is either helping the armed opposition in the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey or is, at the least, turning a blind eye.
Although the Erdogan government has adopted a negative tone toward the political opposition and the international community, for its seeming indifference to the carnage in Syria, there is no clear path to altering the current state of affairs. Out of frustration, Erdogan thus may think that verbal assaults against the CHP will help in creating the impression domestically that the AKP’s Syria policy has been the right one all along — first, when it established close relations with Assad, and later, after the outbreak of rebellion when it called for Assad to step down and sided with the Syrian people. In addition, Erdogan does not mind highlighting that neither the CHP nor anyone else has offered a solution for halting the conflict.
Until 1998, when Syria expelled Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, Turkish-Syrian relations had been limited. A few years later, the opposition expressed the criticism that Erdogan was getting too close, too quickly to the untested Assad, who took power in 2000, and that such rapidly developing relationships usually have the potential to go off course. The opposition repeatedly stated that they did not oppose abolishing visas or developing trade ties with Syria, but that regardless of who controlled the Turkish government, such steps should be taken only gradually.
What is the current dilemma for Turkey’s Syria policy? There is a deadly stalemate on Turkey’s border and no reason to expect a turn for the better any time soon. Not only has a modern-day Turkish government for the first time declared its desire to topple another country’s regime, it has also made it policy. Turkey’s opposition has argued that this approach consigns Syria to never-ending violence.
Western diplomats in Ankara have told Al-Monitor that they are confused by Ankara’s accusatory rhetoric and unrealistic proposals. The consensus within the diplomatic community is that no end game currently exists and that it would be misleading to raise expectations of any sort of military intervention.
Diplomatic sources also questioned Turkey’s proposal to establish a no-fly zone, which has proven to be impractical. Referring to the long-running no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, they noted that that action followed the U.S.-led war against Iraq in 1991 and thus Iraq’s air radar system had been demolished long before Washington asked the UN Security Council for authority to establish the zones.
Furthermore, it is well known that Russia would be an obstacle to a no-fly zone, claiming to be driven by the principled position of protecting a country’s sovereignty and therefore using its veto to prohibit military interventions involving domestic unrest in states friendly with Moscow. The only time Russia has acted differently involved taking action in Libya, when it abstained to clear the way for NATO intervention to help bring down the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
It is clear that the Turkish opposition has had no voice in shaping foreign policy for the decade that the Erdogan government has held power, but with the Syrian mess apparently destined to drag on, Erdogan appears to be playing a preemptive blame game by attacking the domestic opposition and the international community.
“Syrian factions are getting cross-border support from neighboring countries,” peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was quoted as telling members of the Security Council on Jan. 29 at a closed-door meeting. “Syria is becoming a playground for competing forces. None of the neighbors is immune to the fallout consequences of the conflict.”
Of course, it was AKP’s policy, not the CHP’s, to approve weapons transfers to the Syrian opposition across Turkey’s borders. In the current light, maybe it would have been better not to have armed the opposition in the first place, though the point is irrelevant to saving lives in Syria today.
If the international community fully arms the Syrian opposition, it remains unclear whether it will help to build a democratic and free Syria. Once the civil war crosses the border into Turkey, the region will sink deeper in the morass, possibly pushing one of the region’s most resilient economies seriously off track.
Tulin Daloglu is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Middle East Times, Foreign Policy, The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report. She also had a regular column at The Washington Times for almost four years.