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Turkey favors reserved stance toward Arab unrest

The government in Ankara says it supports democratic endeavors in the Arab world. But at the same time, it is exercising great reserve when it comes to concrete action. Economic interests play a role in this behavior.

turkish flags and mosque

Turkey is hesitant to show its true colors in its foreign policy

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the first international leaders to publicly withdraw his support for Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and call for his resignation.

"Listen to the very legitimate demands of your people! Fulfill your people's wishes for reform," Erdogan said. "In today's world, you can't delay or even ignore granting rights and freedoms."

His initial reactions to the democracy movement in Libya, however, were completely different. When the Libyan people took to the streets against their detested regime, Erdogan remained conspicuously reserved for a long time.

One main reason is surely the close economic times between Libya and Turkey. Turkish companies for years have been building factories, roads, housing and shopping malls in the North African country.

Only when the demonstrations against Moammar Gadhafi developed into a civil war and Turkey had to evacuate several tens of thousands of its citizens out of Libya did Ankara bring itself to call on Gadhafi to step down. It's no wonder - deals worth billions are at stake. This also explains Turkey's diplomatic balancing act.

On the one hand, it continues to maintain contact to Gadhafi's regime through its embassy in Tripoli. On the other hand, NATO member Turkey is participating in implementing the UN resolution against Gadhafi - though not with airstrikes, but quite well with logistical military support.

Worrying situation in Syria

With respect to the democracy movement in Syria, Turkey is even more reserved. The Turkish prime minister expressed his criticism of Bashar al-Assad's regime with utter caution.

flags of turkey and syria

Turkey and Syria have enjoyed several years of strengthened diplomatic and economic ties

"It is our well-meant wish that things do not develop in Syria as they have in Libya," Erdogan said. "That would worry us very much."

That is expressed very diplomatically. It would have been more to the point to say: should the situation in Syria culminate further and if the violence escalates, it would be a political and economic catastrophe for Turkey.

Politically because Turkey would have to suddenly show its colors. Are we going to continue cozying up with Syria's president Assad? Or are we going to throw ourselves onto the side of the Syrian people, the democracy movement?

Economic relations play a key role

In economic terms, an unstable Syria is a catastrophe for Turkey because it is more closely tied to its neighboring country than it is to Libya. For years, the common economic ties have been growing. Since 2007, even a Turkish-Syrian free trade agreement has been in place. Accordingly, Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan is attempting to gently exert pressure on the rulers in Damascus.

Erdogan said he has telephoned with Assad several times in the past few days and has recommended that he react to the demands of his people for political reforms. Osman Bahadir Dincer from the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara said Turkey, which has had close ties to Syria's government since 2000, is hoping for a peaceful solution.

"Turkey wants change smoothly and not chaotically in Syria," Dincer said. "If the Syrian leadership around President Assad on its part succeeds in implementing reforms in the country, a transition can take place without it culminating in unrest like in Libya."

But following President Assad's disappointing speech last week, it's questionable whether this smooth transition will be possible. It doesn't look like far-reaching reforms are imminent in Syria. Telephone calls from Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan will probably do little to change this.

Author: Steffen Wurzel, Istanbul / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge

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