Syrian Conflict Is Posing Four Major Threats to Turkey

As the Syrian crisis rages on, neighboring Turkey continues to bear the brunt of the fallout. With a long and unstable shared border, a potential Kurdish takeover in Northern Syria, tens of thousands of refugees and the threat of Assad's chemical weapons, Sami Kohen argues that Turkey could soon be thrown into the center of Syria's fight.

al-monitor A Free Syrian Army soldier arranges his rifle before he praying with his comrades at the Bab Al-Salam border crossing to Turkey July 22, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

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turkey, threat, syria, refugees, pyd, pkk, kurds, kurdistan, free syrian army, chemical weapons, bashar al-assad

Tem 25, 2012

The situation in Syria is having a direct, negative effect on Turkey. Developments in Syria are at the root of four new threats:

The first new threat revolves around the issue of border security. After the latest clashes, most of the Turkish-Syrian border is now under control of anti-Assad forces. Many border posts are now occupied by the Free Syrian Army, but the fighting has not ceased. Army units are still present in towns and the gunfire persists. Until the fate of the Assad regime is decided, the instability in the border region will continue. This, in turn, requires the Turkish army to remain on standby along this long border.

Recent attacks on Turkish trucks have made the tenuous security situation on the border all the more obvious. Some officials have claimed that these incidents could be linked to smuggling and looting activities, but the reality is that the border area is neither calm nor secure. All contacts with this once lively region have been cut off.

The second threat is the Kurdish takeover of Northern Syria, and the likelihood of the region becoming a new base for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As Syrian army units are transferred away from Northern Syria to Damascus and other hot spots, the resulting vacuum has been filled by local Kurdish groups. Many towns were taken over by Kurdish forces without any clashes.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), which some consider the Syrian extension of the PKK, was among the multitude of Kurdish groups that recently congregated during a meeting called for by Massoud Barzani. For Kurdish nationalists and militants, it is important to take advantage of the current disarray and move toward their own goals, one of which is a Kurdish-dominated autonomous region in northern Syria.

The current absence of authority in the region has emboldened the Syrian Kurds. Turkey will now face a “Northern Syria issue” similar to that in Iraq. Therefore, Ankara has to define its strategy with this reality in mind, just as with Northern Iraq.

The Kurds might now seek to deploy the PKK in Northern Syria just as they did in Northern Iraq, and there is a danger that they might launch operations against Turkey from there. This means that a new phase in the battle against the PKK might begin. Various institutions in Turkey are studying the issue.

The third threat is that posed by the Syrian refugee issue. From the outset, Turkey opened its gates to those escaping from Assad and welcomed them into camps. In recent days, as the number of refugees increased [to the roughly 50,000 currently in Turkey] there were reports of unpleasant incidents in the camps. Clashes with refugees on Turkish soil are just as undesirable as a massive refugee influx. If this turns into a serious problem, Ankara might have to look for other solutions, such as erecting camps on the Syrian side of the border within a “humanitarian buffer zone.”

Finally, the fourth danger that Turkey faces is the use of chemical and biological weapons. Syria has officially acknowledged that it possesses such weapons. According to the Syrian government, these weapons will not be used against Syrians but only against foreign attackers. This declaration and the possibility of these weapons ending up in the hands of terrorist groups have generated a strong reaction across the world, including from the US, Europe, Israel and many Arab countries. Naturally the issue concerns Turkey, especially given that the tension with Assad is so high.

In a nutshell, the Syrian crisis has reached a point where the Pandora’s box is likely to be opened. And Turkey tops the list of those directly affected by the crisis.

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