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Turkey struggles in the role of Mideast power during Syria crisis

Turkey, once friendly to Syria, Iran and Iraq, has seen its relations with all three tested as it has tried to stop the violence in Syria.

March 11, 2012|By J. Michael Kennedy, Los Angeles Times
  • Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip, shown at a meeting in parliament in Ankara, has called on Syria to end its violent crackdown on the opposition.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip, shown at a meeting in parliament in… (Adem Altan, AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Istanbul, Turkey — Turkey envisions itself as a Middle East power, a dynamic Islamic democracy with a thriving economy that can help guide the region through the turmoil of the "Arab Spring." But it has stumbled in its efforts to stop the violence and repression in its neighbor and onetime ally Syria.

Although Turkish officials have harshly criticized President Bashar Assad's response to a yearlong uprising that is increasingly taking on the character of a civil war, they have not budged the Syrian leader. And they are aware that a tougher stance could backfire.

The harder they squeeze Syria, the more likely they are to anger the other non-Arab power with regional ambitions, Iran, which remains loyal to Assad. And Assad could retaliate by fomenting unrest within Turkey's borders.

The result has been a diplomatic and public relations nightmare for Turkey.

"I think in a way Turkey has become a victim of its own self-image," said Soli Ozel, an international relations expert at Istanbul's Kadir Has University. "For six or seven months, Turkey tried its best to get Assad to change, and the allies waited for Turkey to deliver."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week renewed his criticism of Syria and those countries that stand by as the bloodshed continues.

"I am addressing the entire world, and countries that remain silent and indifferent and ignore or tolerate the massacre in Syria," he told deputies of his Justice and Development Party in parliament. "I am also addressing international organizations, which cannot produce solutions to this crisis and which encourage its continuation."

Erdogan suggested that humanitarian corridors be opened immediately to provide assistance to Syrians suffering because of the fighting. Turkey harbors an estimated 11,000 refugees who have fled Syria.

That is a huge change from just a year ago, when Syria was one of Turkey's best friends and trading partners.

Turkey, proud of its growing status in the region and the world, was in the enviable position of having good relations with not just one but three difficult neighbors: Syria, Iran and Iraq. But those good relations came at a price, as does changing them.

Gokhan Bacik, director of the Middle East Strategic Research Center at Zirve University in Gaziantep, Turkey, near the Syrian border, said Turkey didn't really understand the complicated dynamics of the Arab world. The government had turned a blind eye toward Syria's ironfisted regime in exchange for peace along the 500-mile border, lucrative trade and a safe transit corridor to deliver millions of dollars' worth of goods to the prosperous Persian Gulf.

"The strategy was successful as long as they did not look into the problems," Bacik said. "Many people believed the agenda was very easy. Now it's not like that."

He said Turkey's hardening policy against Syria came too early, in effect shutting down any room for diplomatic maneuvering.

"Turkey was very quick to finalize its position on Syria," he said. "It was a mistake."

Although Erdogan talks tough, Turkey has been neutralized, at least for now.

Turkey has one of the world's largest standing armies and is experienced in peacekeeping missions, but there is little appetite for intervention. U.S. officials have said they are unlikely to take military action. And vetoes by Russia and China of U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of Syria indicate that the United Nations is not likely to provide an umbrella for an international military mission.

Assad is playing a tactical game in which he calculates how far he can go each day without incurring the collective wrath of the international community, said Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. More than 7,500 people have been killed in the uprising.

Turkey also must weigh other issues, including the fact that a major intervention in Syria could cause Assad to arm the insurgent Kurdish population on both sides of the border, intensifying Turkey's long-standing struggle with that ethnic group.

Kurds make up about 10% of the Syrian population, with most of them living in the northern part of the country next to Turkey. During his long rule, Assad's father rallied Syrian Kurds behind him by arming the Kurdish rebellion movement in Turkey. But that assistance subsided with warming relations between Ankara and Damascus in recent years.

In the meantime, the region is looking much less hospitable to Turkey than it did two years ago. The Kurdish issue also comes into play in relations with Iraq. Turkey is currying favor with Kurds in northern Iraq, who control vast oil reserves, and it has sided with a mostly Sunni Muslim political coalition that is at odds with the Shiite prime minister, Nouri Maliki.

Iran has sided with the Assad regime and the Maliki government, setting the stage for an Iran-Turkey influence contest, including the threat of proxy wars in the region.

Turkey and Iran have a long history of vying for influence. Iran is particularly keen on maintaining its sway in Syria because of that country's strategic location neighboring Lebanon and Israel. And although Turkey and Iran are major trading partners, they keep a wary eye on each other.

"They dance together with poison daggers in their hands," said Ozel of Kadir Has University.

Political analyst Saban Kardas said it was up to Turkey to thread the diplomatic needle on Syria. Sometimes, such challenges provide an opportunity, he said, but it is far from clear whether things will fall its way.

Kennedy is a special correspondent.

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