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Interview: Syrian war leaves Turkey conflicted

The civil war in Syria leaves Turkey in the difficult position of having to show its regional strength without letting itself get dragged into a war, Middle East expert Michael Lüders tells DW.

DW: The world has been watching Syria and over the past few days paid special attention to its border with Turkey. In Syria, the opposition's fight against President Bashar Assad continues and the end of the regime in Damascus gets closer and closer. But does the world know what's waiting for post-Assad Syria?

Michael Lüders, Photo: Hermann Wöstmann

Middle East expert Michael Lüders

Michael Lüders: No, and it's completely open how the future of Syria will be shaped after the fall of Bashar Assad. And it's not clear just when Bashar Assad might give up power. Quite on the contrary - the government in Damascus is convinced that it stands a good chance of winning over the rebels. And indeed the rebels are not making any crucial military victories. And so the situation will remain deadlocked for quite some time to come. Of course Bashar Assad could be killed in an attack, but the regime dominated by Alawites, a religious minority, is still firmly in charge.

Who has the lead in Syria's opposition, do you think - al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah? How big is the threat of a radical Islamization of the country?

The Syrian opposition is divided and the various groups are at odds with one another. Nobody has taken over joint superior control. There are both local Syrian commanders as well as fighters who've come from abroad, many from Iraq. Some of them have a radical agenda and are close to the Salafists or even al Qaeda.

This radicalization of parts of the Syrian insurgency is one of the reasons why the Sunni middle class in Syria, who are centered in Aleppo and Damascus, are hesitant to support the rebels. They simply don't know what the future holds, and which people will be in charge at the end of it all.

Will the moderate Sunni push their way through, or will power fall to the radical Sunni? Seen from the perspective of the religious minorities in particular, such as Druz and Christians, but also from the Syrian middle class, these questions are worrying. That's why many still favor the status-quo of an uncertain future - even if the civil war has become unbearable for the religious minorities and the Syrian middle class.

But a military solution is still not in sight. And most importantly, it's still not clear who will gain power in Damascus, after Assad falls. The country could be split up and divided into different territories controlled by warlords and different religious and ethnic groups.

People look at the damaged house where five Turkish civilians were killed by a mortar bomb in the southern border town of Akcakale Photo: REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Shells from Syria killed five in Turkey this week

After the first shells fell in Turkey with severe consequences, there were several more cases that did not claim any lives. Turkey is reacting with retaliatory attacks. Is a war looming between Turkey and Syria? Could a war involving a NATO member be possible against a Middle Eastern country without it spilling over across the region?

We are already seeing regional spillover to some extent. What started as an uprising by parts of the poor Sunni population in Syria has become an international conflict, where proxy wars are fought. On the one side, there are Western countries, such as the Europeans, the United States, Turkey, but also Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who support the rebels and the insurgents financially and militarily. On the side of the Syrian regime are Russia, China and Iran. The conflict has already been internationalized, but the Turkish attacks on targets in Syria are probably the most dangerous level of escalation that we have seen since the civil war started in March last year.

I don't believe the Turkish government has an interest in intervening in Syria militarily, but that could change if the fighting continues and tensions rise, especially as far as the Kurdish situation is concerned. Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, has taken revenge for the fact that Turkey gives the opposition the opportunity to organize itself by leaving northern Syria essentially to the PKK, or more precisely, to an affiliate of the PKK - the Democratic Union of Kurdistan.

The northern Syria is largely inhabited by Kurds, some Arabs and by members of the PKK, or its local affiliate. They control the northern part of Syria and they have carried the war into the territories of the Kurds in the southeast of Turkey. There are some areas in the southeast where the Turkish army has given up control. And at the same time, the number of terror attacks has risen in Turkey. That's a worrying development. To some degree, Turkey had softened in its approach regarding the situation with the Kurds. Turkey even made some steps toward the Kurds.

Turkish soldiers stand guard in Akcakale by the Turkish-Syria border on October 4, 2012 in southern Sanliurfa province. Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages

Turkey launched retaliatory strikes against Syrian troops on Sunday

Kurds had a limited degree of rights on the one hand, but on the other hand the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not have the political will to solve the Kurdish problem diplomatically, or politically.

The window of opportunity for a political solution has been closed and developments in Syria play a role. Now, the Turkish government favors a violent reaction to the Kurdish uprising , even if Turkey has never managed to defeat the insurgency once and for all militarily since the 1970s.

And so, the Turkish government has a problem. On the one hand, it has to demonstrate strength and has to fulfill the expectations of the nationalist powers in Turkey, but on the other hand, it does not really have a military option. If Turkey was to launch a military intervention in the North of Syria it would undoubtedly be drawn into the Syrian civil war. And then it would experience a similar scenario to what NATO experienced in Afghanistan. You can invade a country, but it's very difficult to exit such a war without losing face.

From what you have said, it seems you believe Turkey's policy regarding Syria has failed. But there's still one question: Did Turkey's conservative religious leadership take one step too far by following a no-problem-strategy with regards to all its neighboring countries, not just Syria?

In my opinion, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan made a big mistake when he - like leaders in all Western countries - assumed too early that Bashar Assad's regime would collapse quickly. Apparently, he believed that the Libyan scenario would repeat itself in Syria and that Bashar Assad would be removed within a few months and he, as the Turkish prime minister, would see a certain boost to his prestige in the Arab world.

In many parts of the Arab world, particularly among the moderate Islamists, Turkey, Erdogan and the AK Party serve as role models because of there enormous economic successes over the last 10 years. They're a major role model for the development of Arab countries. But when it comes to Syria, Erdogan miscalculated. He misjudged the Syrian power structure - as did Western nations, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But Turkey is paying the highest price; not only with the increase in refugees, but also in terms of the threat of an armed conflict escalating on the border between Turkey and Syria.

And there is still the chance of an increase in terrorist attacks in Istanbul and other large Turkish cities by radical Kurds or Syrian fighters. That's a major risk for Erdogan's government.

Furthermore, a war with Turkish support for the Syrian opposition is not welcomed by Turkish Alevi. They sympathize, at least emotionally, with the Alawi in Syria - with Bashar Assad. This poses a serious problem for Erdogan, which he can only solve by introducing a national dialogue that includes both moderate members of the Kurdish population, as well as the Alevi.

If he does not do this, he risks pulling Turkey deeper into the conflict and NATO could leave Turkey hanging by not getting involved in the war, as long as Syrian tanks do not cross the border into Turkey.

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