Although the current ties between Turkey and Syria are on a dangerous downward slide amid intensifying clashes and escalating human rights violations in Syria, once the two neighbors were close allies enjoying the most cooperative relationship in the region, a strong asset to the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) “zero problems with neighbors” policy.
Syria has always been a key regional actor for Turkey’s Mideast policy. Turkey-Syria relations have always been characterized particularly by making mutual efforts to settle Turkey’s Kurdish problem, as Turkey has fought its decades-long battle against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the terrorist organization involved in large-scale operations in Turkey’s southeastern region.
In the meantime, one should not forget that once the Kurdish issue served as a key factor when Syria supported the PKK against the Turkish government, using it as leverage to bring Ankara to dialogue over its claims on Turkey’s Hatay province and sharing the Euphrates River.
However, the bloody clashes that have been going on for 17 months in Syria and Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests have made Turkey cut ties with its close ally and change its Syria policy. Worsening ties with Syria deteriorated after Assad turned down his promise of not backing the PKK.
Concerned about a spillover effect from Syrian Kurds’ establishing an autonomous state in northern Syria on the border with Turkey, Turkish analysts are urging Turkey to be cautious in its Syria policy as they fear this will have enormous impact on Turkey’s Kurdish question, while Turkey’s Kurds might rise up against the government.
Emre Uslu, Turkish political analyst and expert on the Middle East affairs, said in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman that Turkey’s concerns regarding Syrian Kurds after the PKK and its affiliate the Democratic Union Party (PYD), gained control of Kurdish towns along the Turkish border in Syria, are misguided as it has not solved its own Kurdish problem. “Most controversial is that Turkey has, thus far, turned a blind eye on both Syria’s Kurdish problem and the probable Kurdish Syrians’ autonomy in northern Syria,” Uslu said.
Critical of Turkey’s Syria policy since the start of the 17-month uprising in its southern neighbor, Uslu noted that throughout this period Turkey drew on its image as a protector of the oppressed in the region, “as if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s power is so sufficient that it might easily topple the Assad regime and resettle the regional balance in the Middle East.”
Erdoğan asserted on late July that Turkey will not allow PKK-PYD rule in northern Syria and will take whatever steps are necessary against terrorism. “We will not let the terrorist group [the PKK] set up camps [in northern Syria] and pose a threat to us,” Erdoğan said. Earlier, he called military intervention an “undisputed right” if the Kurdish entity emerging in this region poses a security threat to Turkey.
Questioning why Turkish authorities are so worried about the probable establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria, Uslu reasons that it is because Turkey uses its foreign policy as a means to gain support of voters in the domestic policy, a strategy that was put in place after the famous “one minute” crisis to win the voters’ support for the next elections.
In 2009, Erdoğan stormed off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos after a heated debate on Gaza with Israel’s president Shimon Peres. Erdoğan clashed with Peres after the forum’s moderator, Davit Ignatius, had given him a minute to reply and later interrupted him to wrap up, reminding him about the dinner break.
The same had happened during the uprising in Egypt when tens of thousands of protestors in Tahrir Square were calling for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step aside and Erdoğan was one of the first leaders who condemned the rule of Mubarak and urged him to meet his people’s “desire for change.” “At that time Erdoğan gained further credit from Egypt both in an international community and in Turkey,” Uslu notedm adding Turkey follows the same strategic calculations in Syria.
“Erdoğan did not consider that Assad regime will persist so long. However, as fighting and violence persist in Syria coupled with the Assad regime’s resistance, Turkey started to spin as a car stuck in the sand by boasting and delivering timeless speeches,” Uslu pointed out emphasizing, “while continuing through timeless concerns and statements, Turkey’s own Kurdish problem went into more depth.”
Othman Ali, the head of the Turkish-Kurdish Studies Center in Iraq’s Arbil, echoing Uslu, said in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman that with its Kurdish issue not settled at home, any action against the PKK in Syria will be perceived as an anti-Kurdish policy.
“The PKK will tell the Kurds in Syria that Turkey is against their desire to be liberated from decades-old Arab chauvinistic policies of the Syrian regime and to have an autonomous regime of their own,” Ali said, continuing, “This will not only enable PKK to stir up more problems in Turkey; it will further undermine the AKP government’s good relations with Iraqi Kurds.”
The Turkish government is concerned that the PKK is exploiting the Syrian uprising to gain control over the Kurdish area in northern Syria, as autonomy of Syrian Kurds could prod Turkey’s Kurds in that direction as well.
While supporting Turkey’s stance that it cannot ignore the imminent danger from PKK-PYD control in Syria, Ali thinks that Turkey should ensure that Kurds do not misunderstand its position, adding, “The only feasible policy will be for Turkey to get an international mandate to immediately declare northern Syrian a safe haven for the Syrian National Council.”
Erdoğan had stated that ideas such as the establishment of a buffer zone in northern Syria are under consideration.
Seeking a way out for Turkey, Uslu urges Ankara to avoid idle talk and be more cautious in its foreign policy, highly recommending staying far away from any misdirection of its foreign policy. “Turkey should move from making snap decisions to being more circumspect. The Erdoğan government should not misuse its foreign policy for its domestic politics especially for gaining support from voters,” Uslu concluded.