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July 31, 2012, Tuesday

Syria and Turkey: a friendship that went astray

Syria is increasingly becoming a hotspot of domestic and regional conflicts. Its assortment of ethnic and confessional groups wants a piece of the cake that will be baked after the downfall of the Assad regime. Oppressed peoples want legal status and self-administration that will not be challenged by the next government/regime. The present power holders and the social-political cohorts that support them want to cling to the status quo by any way or means or want a government of their own.

Either formulation concerns or involves foreign and neighboring countries that have strategic or security concerns in Syria. They are, somehow, tied to each other by events, interests and alliances. What is Turkey doing?

Turkey started off on the right foot at the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring.” It supported democracy and democratic forces without taking sides among the forces of the opposition. It began in the same fashion in Iraq until the elections held in 2010. From that point on, Ankara became entangled with Sunni groups and adopted an obvious Sunni bias. Placing most of its political support with the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas and Hezbollah at times) swayed Turkey away from being a bipartisan actor and an element of reconciliation among conflicting sides. Turkey became a side in Middle Eastern politics. Now the Shiites of the region and the Alawites of Syria see Turkey as an opponent. Unfortunately, the feeling is mutual.

Considering that Turkey has not reconciled with its own (Turkish) Alevi population by denying the few basic human rights they demand, it has made it harder for Turkey to win over the Arab Alawites of Syria and their relatives in Mersin and Hatay, who are all Turkish citizens. This is the first foreign policy mistake Ankara committed.

The second mistake is threatening the Syrian administration with new rules of military engagement and forcing it to pull its military forces from border areas with Turkey. Lo and behold, Syrian Kurds have filled in the vacuum and occupied predominantly Kurdish townships and administrative centers and declared a kind of self-rule. They have vowed to defend their newly won prize by force if necessary. This uncalculated conclusion surprised Turkey, which had acted more emotionally than rationally.

Ankara’s emotional reaction led it to commit its third mistake: declaring that it will interfere if Kurds establish autonomous zones within Syria. This threat exposed a stark bias against the Kurds. While Ankara is encouraging Sunni autonomous enclaves within Syria created by Sunni militants partly trained in Turkey, Kurds are treated as an enemy in their pursuit of political status and self-rule. This partisan attitude condemns Kurds to either servitude to dictatorial rule or to be devoid of legal status as equal citizens with full civic rights. This picture does not fit into the frame Turkey has presented all along as a developing democracy and a country governed by the rule of law that respects basic human rights and political freedoms for all.

A fourth mistake Ankara is committing is not acknowledging the fact that a substantial portion of the Kurds residing in Syria are those or scions of those that have escaped pursuit and persecution following sundry Kurdish rebellions that took place after the declaration of the republic. So they are basically citizens of Turkey just as most of the Syrians in the ranks of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Now, Turkey is threatening to strike another Kurdish population that is originally from Turkey in search of a better life. This may lead to the unification of all Kurds in the region and the initiation of ethnic warfare against Turkey. I personally doubt that a substantial part of the Turkish people will support such comprehensive warfare that would be waged within and without, dragging Turkey back to what it was in the 1950s.

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