Appearing at the forefront of like-minded countries to find a viable solution to end the maelstrom of violence gripping Syria, Turkey is squeezed between its principles and the grim realities of regional and international geopolitics.
When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded violently to his people’s grievances and calls for reform and a transition to a democratic system last year, Turkey stood by the Syrian people in their endeavors from the very beginning.
Once a close ally of Assad, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not shied away from sternly criticizing his former friend and has made the Turkish position on the issue very clear, taking the risk of losing one of its allies in the region.
However, Turkey’s principle-oriented policy on the 18-month-old Syrian conflict has come nowhere near satisfying the people in Syria and across the Middle East, although they once welcomed Ankara’s critical stance of the Assad regime.
The primary cause of resentment and frustration among the Syrian people towards Turkey is the large gap between its rhetoric and its actions with regards to the continuing Syrian crisis.
It is becoming more apparent to Turkey that all of the statements and remarks made by its decision-makers have no influence on the struggle that is being played out on the ground. Despite the high praise for Turkey’s great humanitarian efforts in hosting more than 80,000 refugees and providing medical care to the injured, the Syrian people are calling on Ankara to take bolder action to bring an end to the violence that has claimed thousands of lives.
In remarks to Sunday’s Zaman, Ali Bakeer, a Middle East expert for the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), said Turkey’s critical voice on the ongoing Syrian conflict was loud from the very beginning of the conflict and raised people’s expectations.
“People expected that Turkey would do something to stop the bloodshed,” Bakeer said. According to him, Turkey is now paralyzed and unable to act unilaterally in the absence of a consensus on the Syrian crisis by the international community. “Its failure to keep its promises has inflicted a heavy blow on Turkey’s credibility among the people in Syria, and they are turning to other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar for direct help in their fight against the regime,” he went on to say.
Addressing the gradual erosion of Turkish deterrence in the region, one local in Aleppo told Sunday’s Zaman that Turkey’s stern warnings to the Syrian regime were not taken into account when Syrian air forces staged airstrikes on Azaz and surrounding villages near the Turkish border.
“After the shooting down of a Turkish jet, Ankara said it would consider any Syrian military presence near the Turkish border as a hostile act. The ‘rule of engagement’ covers an area a few miles from the border. However, Turkey did nothing when Syrian jets pounded villages just a mile away from the border,” the local said, expressing Syrians’ frustration towards Turkey in light of the recent air shelling that left hundreds of people dead.
According to Bakeer, Turkish decision makers are not really aware of the growing negative perceptions about Turkey. He said Turkish politicians are still issuing strong statements while they do nothing on the ground.
Needless to say, considering the psychological factors that drive people’s emotions and perceptions of other countries in times of crisis, Turkey faces another emerging threat: losing its deterrent capability -- a key element of international politics as most of the red lines drawn by Ankara have been crossed by Syria several times.
Arabs are now seriously discussing Turkey’s deterrent capabilities regarding the Syrian crisis, said Veysel Ayhan, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs at the International Middle East Peace Research Center (IMPR).
People’s hopes and beliefs, previously pinned on Turkey’s ability to restore order in a post-war period, are being dashed with its impotence over handling the crisis, said Ayhan, who argued that Turkey had raised people’s expectations in the beginning but when it failed to keep its promises of taking action, hopes began to fade.
This frustration could be replaced with anger over time if this pattern of politics takes hold, he asserted. In addition, Ayhan argued that decision makers should always measure its capabilities before pursuing a policy on a particular issue in foreign affairs and carefully consider its discourse on the matter. There should be careful measurement of capabilities before any action, he said. In this regard, Ayhan underlined that if a state loses its deterrence once, restoring it may require more sophisticated and costly moves, even including a military campaign.
In the meantime, Fayed Suleiman, a retired Arabic literature teacher in a village of Aleppo, said Syrians are aware of the factors that limit and contain Turkey’s actions, citing the international dimension of the problem as Ankara seeks international legitimacy for any possible action towards Syria, in remarks to Sunday’s Zaman.
Suleiman, however, addressed the need for humanitarian aid and called on Turkey to send direct aid to those who are trapped in villages and towns near the Turkish border and facing a dire food shortage. He further noted that Ankara should not let the Turkmen people down.
The lack of consensus among international powers, with the US on the one hand and Russia and China on the other, discredited the UN as a valuable and meaningful platform to thrash out a common solution to the deadlock in Syria.
As a result of the inertia of the international community, which has so far failed to move beyond just verbal criticism of the Assad regime and has not taken any bolder step, Turkey feels the need to contain any possible spillovers of the Syrian conflict.
This could mean substantial action, either through a limited military operation inside Syria to create a safe zone, or an outright military confrontation with Syria. Along with the threat of the spread of the Syrian conflict, Turkey also faces a grave security risk on its borders with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party’s (PKK) presence in northern Syria after being given the green light by Damascus.
Syrian troops retreated from the northern part of country, leaving control of the towns of Afrin, Qubani and Qamishli to the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD), which is affiliated with the terrorist PKK. According to Bakeer, the Assad regime is extremely aware of the red lines drawn by Ankara and studiously avoids direct military engagement with Turkey. While eschewing open conflict, he contended, Syria now indirectly engaging in hostile acts through backing the PKK in its fight against Ankara.