As Turkey vows to retaliate against its southern neighbor, saying that the Syrian aggression will not go unpunished, it must deliberately weigh its decision before any possible intervention through a careful, thorough review of how the Arab public perceives its actions.
Before the Arab Spring swept the Middle East, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won the status of a hero in the hearts of millions of Arabs, regardless of whether they were Sunni or Shiite, when he stormed out of a World Economic Forum debate over three years ago in Davos, Switzerland, after a heated discussion with Israeli President Shimon Peres over Israel’s offensive in Gaza.
Erdoğan leveled accusations against Peres, blaming him for the deaths of Palestinian civilians. That made him enormously popular in the Arab street, as leaders of the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East faced accusations of bowing in silence amid the unremitted Israeli slaughter of Palestinians in the Gaza War.
However, Arabs now have conflicting and mixed views of Turkey and Erdoğan, as realpolitik and geopolitics pit Muslim countries against each other and governments against their people.
Turkey, which appeared to be a successful model for the region, merging Islam with a liberal democracy and booming economy, has now taken a side in the Arab political crisis created when the Arab Awakening shook political and sectarian fault lines across the Middle East.
This bleak picture became increasingly apparent when Erdoğan urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, once a close ally, to step down and began to allow the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella organization encompassing various opposition groups, to organize in Turkey. Many people’s perceptions of Turkey changed as it emerged a vocal critic of Assad in line with Western countries.
Relations between Turkey and Syria have been frayed over the course of the crisis and were exacerbated when a Turkish jet was shot down by Syria after it briefly strayed into Syrian airspace in June. The downing of the jet added a new twist in the saga and raised questions whether Turkey would choose to intervene in its tumultuous neighbor.
At this point, knowing what Arabs think about a possible Turkish intervention is of critical importance for the future of Turkish relations with the region.
“Bashar Assad’s regime is so despised in the region that any Turkish military action in Syria would be viewed as positive. There is widespread support for Turkey’s tough stance against the Assad regime. In fact, most people might be disappointed that Turkey has acted with so much restraint following the Syrian military’s shooting down of a Turkish jet,” said Shakir Husain, an Indian journalist who spent 14 years in the United Arab Emirates and is a keen observer of Arab affairs, in remarks to Sunday’s Zaman on Wednesday.
However, he argued that Turkey must seek Arab support before taking any military action against its tumultuous neighbor so as to gain popular support across the Middle East. He thinks that any a lack of decisive action by Turkey against Syria may harm Prime Minister Erdoğan’s popularity in the Arab world.
In the meantime, people are aware that Turkey remains the only regional power capable of playing a crucial role in breaking the deadlock in the Syrian crisis.
Ceren Kenar, a Beirut-based columnist for the Taraf daily, said in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman on Thursday that Turkey’s overcautious stance contradicts the Turkish government’s vocal criticism of the Assad regime. According to her, one of the critical mistakes made by the Turkish government was its very harsh rhetoric against the Syrian regime from the very beginning of political unrest there. She said anti-Assad groups in Lebanon expect a harsh reaction from Turkey over the recent jet crisis.
“When Turkey employed such stern, harsh rhetoric against the Assad regime, it raised the expectations of people across the region that Turkey might take the lead and intervene in Syria.”
Most of the Arabs across the region, according to Kenar, endorse Turkey’s policy against Syria and even expect harsher action. She said several journalists with whom she spoke reminded her of Erdoğan’s statements last year, when he said, “Turkey does not want to see a repetition of the infamous Hama massacre in its neighboring country.”
These remarks, made in May of 2011, were interpreted as an indication by Turkey that it was going to take a more active stance and even intervene to stop the regime’s unabated killings. Although many Arabs expected it, it never happened.
Before the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, Turkey had great popularity among both Sunni and Shiite communities in Lebanon. However, this is no longer the case. Kenar said there is widespread perception among the Lebanese Shiite community that Turkey is acting as a proxy for the US and NATO, seeking to intervene in another Arab country.
Some Lebanese media outlets affiliated with the Shiite Hezbollah, an Iranian offshoot in the country, provide coverage Turkish regional policies in this regard, presenting Turkey as a puppet of the West.
Kenar noted that whatever course Turkey takes, it will be impossible to satisfy all sides at the same time.
Dalia Mogahed, a senior analyst and executive director of Gallup, an international research company, said that while most Arab sympathies are squarely with the rebels in Syria, it is not clear they would welcome an escalation of the conflict by a Turkish or NATO intervention.
It is highly likely that any intervention in Syria would be unwelcomed by Middle Eastern people, as most Arabs opposed the NATO intervention in Libya a year ago, she suggested.
A survey conducted by Gallup in May demonstrated that most Arabs in nine countries opposed the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011. The Gallup data suggest that a similar intervention in Syria could meet with opposition and resentment among Arabs.