The International Herald Tribune, France
March 16, 2012 Friday
Weighing the perils and promise of Syria
Reluctant to intervene, Turkey feels pressed by refugees and reputation
by DAN BILEFSKY
With another 1,000 refugees pouring over the border, the spiraling
crisis in Syria, a former ally, has presented Turkey with an
opportunity that is promising, but perilous.
The intensifying crackdown by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad
has prompted more than 1,000 Syrians to cross into Turkey during the
past 24 hours, Turkish officials said Thursday, amid growing fears of
a refugee crisis spilling into the country.
The yearlong uprising in Syria has proven both deadly and intractable,
confronting the world with the potential for a regional war and a
humanitarian crisis even as the international community is accused of
looking the other way.
The spiraling crisis in Syria has presented Turkey with an
opportunity, both perilous and promising, to show its heft to the
world as the large Muslim country of 79 million people strives to
become a regional leader. But so far Turkey has been largely stymied
in its efforts to influence events within Syria.
Despite heavy deployment by Syrian forces along the Turkish border,
frightened Syrians are continuing to flee, with more than 14,700 now
sheltered in five camps in Hatay, a Turkish province on the border.
”There has been an increase in those fleeing from Syria to our
country,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said
Thursday. ”Yesterday, the number of people who had come was 13,700.
This morning, the number is 14,700.”
He said that a top Syrian general was among the newest refugees, the
seventh high-ranking military officer to have defected. Turkish
officials said Ankara was making contingency plans in the event of a
massive inflow of Syrians; it had built a camp of prefabricated houses
to host 15,000 people in Kilis, an eastern border town. Another camp
was being built in Sanliurfa province, along the border with Syria, to
house up to 20,000 people.
While the Syrian opposition remains hopelessly divided and the world
has been unable to unify against the Assad regime amid intransigence
by Russia and China, a Europe distracted by economic malaise and a
United States reluctant to become mired in a volatile region, Turkey
has intensified its criticism of the Syrian regime.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey recently likened Mr. Assad
to Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian strongman who plunged his country
into an ethnically driven civil war.
Yet for all of its bluster and resolve, Turkey has also been reluctant
to intervene, insisting that it will not take unilateral military
action and that any such initiative should come from the Arab League
or the United Nations.
Proposals to create a buffer zone or a humanitarian aid corridor
within Syria as well as to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army or to
establish an Arab peace-keeping force are expected to be discussed at
a Friends of Syria meeting set for April 2 in Istanbul.
Turkish officials say they have not ruled out having its military
participate in an international plan to create a buffer zone in the
event that Mr. Assad continues to slaughter his own people and an even
larger influx of refugees ensues.
Turkish officials say privately that Ankara will not act unilaterally
in imposing such a zone because Russia and Iran are backing Syria,
making the risks too high.
Analysts say Turkey is also extremely wary of taking military action
partly because of concerns that sectarian strife in Syria could
migrate to Turkey. Turkish officials fear that Turkish boots on the
ground could undermine Turkey’s popularity in a region where memories
of Ottoman rule still run deep.
Despite its limited room to maneuver, Turkey has been jockeying to
position itself as a country that can influence a post-Assad Syria. It
is hosting the Syrian opposition, including the Syrian National
Council, and the rebel Free Syrian Army, a group of some 10,000
soldiers that is being housed in an army camp in Turkey near the
But as Mr. Assad continues to cling to power, Turkey risks finding
itself the patron of a failed revolt while also being saddled with a
refugee crisis or, worse, a civil war on its doorstep.
”The stakes are very high for Turkey in Syria,” said Soli Ozel,
columnist for Haberturk, a leading Turkish newspaper. ”If Turkey
proves to be ineffectual in resolving the Syrian conflict, then all of
the claims of its regional prowess will take a big hit.”
Turkey has been playing a leading role in marshalling a coalition to
put pressure on Syria in the Arab League. At the same time, aides say,
the Syrian crisis has made Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan an indispensable ally to President Barack Obama.
The conflict in Syria, however, has laid bare the limits of Turkey’s
power in the region. Just a year ago, Turkey was emerging as one of
Syria’s closest allies, with the two countries holding joint cabinet
sessions and Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Assad even vacationing together.
Turkey’s 910 kilometer, or 500-mile, border with Syria is its longest,
and trade between the two countries had more than tripled to $2.5
billion in 2010.
Despite years of diplomatic engagement and economic investment, Turkey
could not persuade Mr. Assad to back down.
The conflict in Syria is seen as a crucial test for Turkey as it
struggles to carry out its newly muscular foreign policy in the
region. Turkey’s aspirations to join the European Union are all but
dormant. The conflict with Cyprus appears as intractable as ever.
Efforts to reach a solution over Armenia are at an impasse.
Meanwhile, diplomatic ties with Israel are frozen over an Israeli
commando raid on a vessel that tried to reach Gaza from Turkey. Iran
remains deeply suspicious of Turkey’s agreement to host a NATO missile
Bordered to the east by countries including Syria, Iraq and Iran,
Turkey – with its majority Sunni population – risks becoming mired by
the sectarian divisions convulsing its neighbors. While Syria is
tipping toward civil war, Iraq is once again buffeted by sectarian
strife and Iran has aligned itself firmly behind the Assad regime.
Sami Kohen, foreign affairs columnist at Milliyet, a leading Turkish
newspaper, noted that sectarian divisions threatened to spill over
into Turkey. The country is home to around 10 million Alawite
citizens, some of whom are sympathetic to Mr. Assad, also an Alawite.
Meanwhile, Turkish officials express concern that Syria, backed by
Iran, could seek to embolden the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or
P.K.K, as a means to punish Turkey for supporting the Syrian
While Turkey could clearly benefit if Mr. Assad were overthrown,
analysts note that Arab countries would be loath to see Turkey exert
too much influence.
”Arab countries don’t want Turkey to be the kingmaker in Syria,” Mr.
Ozel said. ”Arabs are Arabs and Turks are Turks.”