Experts agree that increasingly isolated Syria has nothing to lose while Turkey, with its growing economy and active foreign policy, faces serious threats ranging from increasing violence of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to growing numbers of refugees crossing the border, from valuable trade in the Middle East and the Gulf markets to the image problem of exercising hard power. But the worst threat is the increasing likelihood of sectarian war in Syria, which may spill over into other countries in the region, including Turkey.
The threat Syria poses has escalated with the shooting down of an unarmed Turkish jet by Syrian forces last Friday, which according to Ankara was on a solo mission to test domestic radar systems.
Syria described its shooting down of the Turkish F-4 jet as an act of self-defense, and Turkey, while saying the incident would “not go unpunished,” emphasized that it does not intend to go to war with Syria.
Sedat Laçiner, the rector of Çanakkale 18 Mart University, told Sunday’s Zaman that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is trying to pull Turkey into a war, adding that Assad’s regime would obtain several advantages from this. “Firstly, if Turkey and Syria engaged in a war, the Assad regime would use this war as a pretext to intensify its power, showing its people that it is fighting against an occupying power. Secondly, the Assad regime would portray this war as a Turkish-Arab conflict in order to gain the support of the Arab world, representing itself as a hero of the Arab world. Thirdly, in the case of a war, the Syrian issue would evolve into a bilateral issue between Turkey and Syria, which would ease pressures on the Assad regime as attention would turn from Syrian internal politics to bilateral politics,” said Laçiner. Fawaz Tello, a prominent dissident who resigned from Syria’s main opposition umbrella group in exile, the Syrian National Council (SNC), last May, told Sunday’s Zaman that Turkey was willing to stop what was happening in Syria, particularly after Assad failed to fulfill his commitments, adding that Turkey needs support from the international community if it is to take the initiative in Syria.
“Turkey wants to take a step in Syria but needs political and financial support from both the regional actors and the international actors, including NATO and the UN. It is very obvious that Turkey, in the event of a conflict with Syria, will not only face the Assad regime but also Assad’s allies, including Iran, Russia and China,” said Tello.
Russia and China have used their power of veto twice in the UN Security Council to shield Syria from harsher international sanctions, arguing firmly against a military intervention.
Syria allowed Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, now imprisoned on the island of İmralı, to take shelter and direct the terrorist organization from within its borders for several years, ending in 1998 when Syria had to deport Öcalan because of pressure from Turkey. It seems inclined to play the PKK card against Turkey, since its neighbor to the north has taken a hard line on the issue and criticized Damascus when it chose to crush demonstrations calling for reforms by opening fire on protestors.
It is claimed that the Syrian regime, which was giving the PKK a hard time until very recently, has started to allow PKK members to live in a certain region mostly populated by Kurds in Syria.
A military confrontation between Turkey and Syria would allow Damascus to play the PKK card much more openly and effectively against Turkey.
Regarding the PKK threat, Laçiner stated that since last year Syria has been involved in the PKK issue, inciting PKK attacks in Turkey. “Syria is ready to support the PKK to the utmost. As the relations have become strained between the two countries, PKK attacks have also increased,” said Laçiner.
Agreeing with Laçiner, Tello stated that the Assad regime was going to play the PKK card, which was very dangerous for the Turkish state and its sovereignty. “Assad is going to allow the PKK to continue their activities on Syrian soil and will also arm them,” said Tello.
Atilla Sandıklı, the chairman of the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BİLGESAM), told Sunday’s Zaman that that the internal conflict in Syria would maximize the PKK’s efficiency, particularly in the northern part of Syria and also along the Turkish-Syrian border. “The Assad regime can provide the PKK with financial support in order to create a threat to Turkey. If Turkey becomes a part of the Syrian crisis then Turkey will need to confront both the Assad regime as well as the PKK threat,” said Sandıklı.
The Syrian crisis is wrongly evaluated as something independent from other developments in the region. However, what concerns Turkey most is what happens in Syria, and Syria’s downing of a military jet is not unrelated to Turkey’s PKK problem.
“The Syrian regime knows that there is nothing to lose, but in the event of a war Turkey will lose many things, including its status as a role model in the Arab world,” said Laçiner, adding that if the Syrian crisis reached a certain level, Turkey’s political and economic interests in the region would also be endangered. “Syria is a major risk for Turkey. Turkey-Syria tensions would harm Turkey’s interests in the Middle East,” he said.
“Instability in Syria means instability in Turkey. What is happening in Syria is a real strategic issue for Turkey,” added Tello, going on to state that Turkey’s neighbors were acting with a sectarian attitude rather than for the stability of the region. Turkey, says Tello, is the main actor capable of balancing the sectarian element of the crisis. “Turkey is trying to avoid sectarian policies in the region. Turkey’s neighbors, Iran and Iraq, will not end their sectarian policies,” said Tello, adding that any sectarian conflict would rebound seriously onto Turkey.
The Syrian crisis brought with it another problem: the refugee issue, which is a significant concern for the internal stability of Turkey. Turkey has set up refugee camps on its border for Syrians who have fled the fighting.
Metin Çorabatır from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Turkey told Sunday’s Zaman that there are 33,079 refugees in Turkey at present. “Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, 55,690 Syrian citizens have entered Turkey, and 22,611 have left Turkey for Syria due to various reasons,” said Çorabatır, adding that if the numbers increased due to the escalating tensions, Turkey would face serious economic problems.
Touching upon the refugee problem, Tello stated that not only Turkey but also the Arab states should take responsibility for such individuals. “There are more than 1 million refugees inside Syria. If these people flee to Turkey, the refugee problem will cause social and economic problems in Turkey in the future,” said Tello.
Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert from Lehigh University, told Sunday’s Zaman that the main risks for Turkey are essentially two: “First is the deepening of the refugee crisis as the violence in Syria escalates. Second is, after the increased tensions with Syria, the possibility of a more serious accidental military encounter.”
Turkey also faces economic risks due to the increased tensions with Syria. According to Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) figures, the trade volume between the two countries was $2.3 billion in 2010. In the first four months of 2011 the trade volume was $763 million, while in the first four months of 2012 it had dropped to $249 million, a decrease of 32 percent.
It has become too dangerous for Turkish truckers to use the Syrian route to reach trade partners to the south. Security has become too much of an issue for the route to be used -- particularly in the past few weeks, during which relations between Turkey and Syria have deteriorated over the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown on the opposition, which is demanding removal of embattled President Assad.
It seems experts agree that the Syrian crisis could be costly for Turkey in various respects, including PKK violence, the refugee issue, economic risks and sectarian conflict.