October 9, 2012 – Play with fire, and you will get burned. A mortar shell fired from Syria by either government troops or rebels as a provocation killed five Turkish villagers on the border. Turkish heavy artillery riposted, killing Syrian soldiers. Turkey’s parliament authorized military action against Syria. One could almost hear the thunder of the great Ottoman war drums that heralded the arrival of the sultan’s armies and his fierce Janissary warriors.
Turkey’s leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has done so brilliantly for the past decade that it was probably inevitable he would finally make a really big mistake. He did. It’s called Syria.
Erdogan and his clever foreign affairs minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, crafted and implemented a very successful foreign policy after coming to power, known as “no problems,” which forged fruitful relations with all of Turkey’s neighbors – Israel excepted.
Hard as it is to imagine today, only a year ago Turkey was being hailed as the new leader of the Arab world (Turks and Arabs are of different ethnicity and culture). Until the Erdogan era, many Arabs still mistrusted or disliked Turkey, legacy of the defunct Ottoman Empire. After standing up to Israel and taming his generals, Erdogan became the most popular leader in the Mideast and a role model for democratic good governance.
Before Erdogan and his AK Party forced Turkey’s bullying military back to its barracks, Turkish foreign policy had reflected America’s regional animosities: Ankara was at scimitar’s drawn with Syria, Iran, the Palestinians and Hezbollah. By contrast, Turkey’s generals were hand in glove with Israel’s military establishment. The US Pentagon often seemed to have more influence over Turkey’s powerful armed forces than its weak prime ministers.
Turkey’s neighborly love-fest ended soon after Syria erupted in civil war. For reasons that still remain murky, Erdogan dropped his “love-thy-neighbor” policy and began actively supporting Syria’s insurgents.
Until the Syrian uprising, Turkey had enjoyed good trade and political relations with Damascus. Syria had more or less dropped its claims to Turkish-ruled Hatay province, and told its Kurdish minority not to make trouble for the Turks. Hatay, and its strategic port of Iskenderun, were part of historic Syria (as was Lebanon and Palestine), but passed with French help to Turkish rule in the last century. If relations between Ankara and Damascus continue to worsen, this thorny issue may again heat up.
Turkey blundered into Syria’s civil war soon after it erupted in March, 2011. Ankara allowed Syrian insurgent groups, funded and armed by Saudi Arabia, France, Britain, the US and Qatar, to operate from its soil. CIA established an important logistics and communications base for the insurgents at the US air base at Incirlik, Turkey. US, British and French special forces based in Turkey discreetly joined in the war to overthrow the Assad regime in Damascus - all part of Washington’s undeclared but very real and intensifying multi-dimensional war against Iran, Syria’s closest ally.
Each passing day of Syria’s brutal civil war raises the risk that Turkey will send its armed forces into Syria, either to create so-called “civilian corridors” or no-fly zones to ground the Assad regime’s air force. All-out NATO intervention led by the US could occur after American presidential elections.
Meanwhile, the besieged Assad regime in Damascus has lost control of a northern border region inhabited by 2 million ethnic Kurds who have become autonomous. Ankara, which faces a virtual independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq and its own long-simmering uprising by its Kurdish minority, is deeply alarmed by the specter of Kurdish nationalism.
The war in Syria has accentuated Turkey’s serious Kurdish problem. This writer covered the Turkish – Kurdish conflict in eastern Anatolia a decade ago, in which over 40,000 had died by 1992 alone. Turkey thought it had put an end to the Kurdish PKK insurgency by capturing its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999. The PKK’s main base was in Syria.
Ocalan remains in prison. But the Kurdish independence movement has sprung again to life. Syria will very likely resume aiding Kurdish PKK fighters to exact revenge on Turkey for abetting anti-regime guerillas. This is a huge problem for Turkey as Kurds make up 15-20% of its population.
By fueling Syria’s civil war, Erdogan has kicked the Kurdish hornet’s nest.
The conflict in Syria is pitting its minority Alawites (an offshoot of Shia Islam), who dominate the Assad regime, against the long-repressed Sunni majority. As Syria’s Alawites fight for what some believe is their lives, their struggle is reverberating in Lebanon, where Shiites make up the largest religious community. Turkey’s long-marginalized Alevis, who are another distant offshoot of Shia Islam and close to Syria’s Alawis, and who are looked down on by the Sunni majority as heretics, are also feeling the reverberations of the Syrian conflict. Alevis may make up as much as 15% of Turkey’s population of some 74 million.
Recent revelations of a massacre of Alevis in 1938 at the end of the era of Turkish strongman Ataturk has inflamed Alevi emotions in Turkey and deepened their sense of persecution and historic injustice.
So the Syrian conflict is re-opening some of the deep fissures in Turkey’s body politics just at a time when its zesty economy was enjoying a 7% growth rate – not far from China’s – and Turkey had become the Mideast’s cock of the walk.
Now, Syria bodes ill for all involved.
Syria may be headed for the same kind of vicious, enduring civil war that cursed Lebanon from 1975-1990. Syria’s various ethnic/religious groups have too much to lose, too many scores to settle, and nowhere to retreat. Into this maelstrom is charging PM Erdogan. Syria could very well prove a curse for Turkey and a drain on its resources.
Interestingly, polls show a majority of Turks oppose Erdogan’s Syria interventionist policies as dangerous and unnecessary. Foes on the left accuse Erdogan of restoring Turkey’s Cold War role as America’s policeman in the Mideast. Others see a secret plan by Ankara to restore Ottoman-era rule over Syria. France is also stirring the pot in Syria, eager to reassert its former influence in the Levant. America wants to stick its finger in Iran’s eye. The British are there to pick up the crumbs.
“Nothing good from Syria,” runs an old Roman military saying. PM Erdogan would do well to heed this maxim. Turkey should be working to forge a peaceful settlement of the civil war an halt growing foreign meddling in this gruesome conflict. Now is not the time for a recrudescence of Ottoman empire-building.
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