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Ankara's Syria policy

Baha Güngör / ai
May 23, 2013

Turkey very early on threw its weight behind the Syrian opposition. The fact that Assad is managing to cling to power now threatens to undermine Prime Minister Erdogan's position at home, says DW's Baha Güngör.


As a neighbor of Syria, Turkey is right on the frontline between the West and one of the world's most volatile regions now threatened with an ever-escalating conflict. Ankara, therefore, would have been well-advised not to put too much pressure on itself to get involved when the Arab Spring spilled over into Syria and led to a major uprising against dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Bahaeddin Güngör (photo: DW)
Baha Güngör heads DW's Turkish departmentImage: DW

But Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was too quick in backing the opposition and taking a position against his former friend in Damascus. The plan, however, didn't work out as expected: Assad is still in power and Damascus is even winning territory back from the fractured opposition rebels. The danger of Turkey getting sucked into the military conflict is even threatening to weaken Erdogan's position at home.

Deadly blast

The devastating bomb attacks on May 11 in the Turkish town of Reyhanli near the Syrian border officially killed 51 and wounded more than 200 - so far it is the highest price Turkey has had to pay for its Syria strategy. Because of the news blockade set up by the government, there are no independent figures on the victims, but some estimates put the actual number of people killed three times higher than Ankara's official version. The perpetrators behind the attack are still unknown and there's mere speculation as to who they might be.

No one can say for sure who has what interests along the 9,000 kilometers of border, and who is fighting on which side. The Turkish border province of Hatay, which Damascus claims to be historically part of Syria, hosts many different religions and ethnic groups: Arabs, Kurds, Syrian Alawites, Sunnis, Shiites, Jihadists, al Qaeda fighters as well as Syrian opposition members blamed for the tragedy and now persecuted by the local Turkish community.

Going it alone?

Erdogan's wrong prediction of how the Syrian conflict would evolve is not only likely to jeopardize the timid peace process with Turkey's Kurdish population. The Reyhanli attacks could be the beginning of a new kind of terror threat against Ankara. Further attacks in larger cities or even holiday destinations would not only derail the country's domestic situation but would also threaten the strong economic growth of past years. That could take the shine off Erdogan's economic record very quickly.

Erdogan has indicated, after his talks with US President Barack Obama, that he no longer believes in Assad's quick fall from power. Russia, China and Iran will continue to back the Syrian dictator as long as possible in order to not lose face over the issue. After their experience with Afghanistan and Iraq, the US will not want to get sucked into yet another adventure in the Middle East which potentially could escalate even further and threaten peace on a global level. In this context, there's no room for Turkey to go it alone - the ice under Ankara's Syria policy is simply too thin.

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