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13 August, 2012  ▪  Michael Binyon

Putin’s Syrian Fears

Ankara’s hopes to become a leader in the region and a bridge between East and West were ruined by the civil war in Syria

In the past year Turkey has emerged as the big winner from the Arab Spring. Its stability, economic boom and moderate Islamist government have become the model many Arab countries now want to follow. Its Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is the longest serving since the death of Ataturk, and is winning a growing following throughout the Middle East for his support of democracy in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire. But one issue could derail all Turkey's hopes of becoming a regional superpower and vital bridge between East and West: the civil war now raging in Syria.

For years before Erdogan's AK party came to power, Turkey was economically depressed, politically unstable and surrounded by hostile neighbours: Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Bulgaria and Syria all had historic quarrels with Ankara. But under a new policy of "zero problems with neighbours", Turkey has slowly repaired the rifts, soothed ancient enmities and moved to accommodate political difference. Nowhere was this more evident than in Syria. Twenty years ago relations were tense. Damascus was sheltering the leader of the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist group and Turkey's bitter enemy, and still refused to recognise Turkey's sovereignty over the border province of Hatay. But after a Turkish show of force, Syria expelled the PKK leader and relations began to improve. Erdogan saw in Bashar al-Assad a modernising reformer, and opened his arms with help, advice and trade deals.

When protests began in southern Syria some 17 months ago, Erdogan urged Assad to start the reforms needed in response. Assad repeatedly promised to make changes. But he did nothing. Erdogan, a prickly man who does not like to be thwarted, felt insulted and betrayed. His disappointment turned to anger and Turkey's links with Damascus crumbled. When armed clashes began in Syria, Turkey offered fleeing refugees a haven along the border, hosted conferences of the Syrian opposition and became the region's most outspoken critic of the Assad regime.

But the Turkish Prime Minister has been forced into a delicate balancing act. He quickly saw the political benefit at home and in the rest of the Arab world of supporting Sunni opponents of the minority Alawite Syrian regime. Turkey could again pose as the champion of mainstream Islam, while at the same time urging democracy on Damascus. This would only increase Turkish influence in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and other Arab countries - though it would swiftly sharpen disagreement with Shia Iran, Assad's main backer. It seemed the perfect way of re-establishing Turkish influence in its former Ottoman provinces.

Championing the rebels meant turning a blind eye to the smuggling of arms over the border into Syria. It meant leading the verbal and political attacks on Assad and urging Russia, Assad's main protector at the United Nations, to take a tougher stance. And it meant massing troops on the Syrian border and threatening Assad with no-fly zones, aid corridors for the rebels and even possible direct military intervention.

At the same time, Erdogan has had to be cautious. For several years he has been locked in a bitter political quarrel with the once powerful Turkish military leadership, long the champion of secularism in Turkey and deeply suspicious of its Islamist Prime Minister. After several trials of strength, elections that saw popular support increase for the Islamists and the discovery of a sensationalist but murky plot by disaffected senior officers to overthrow the AK government, Erdogan has effectively curtailed military power. Senior officers have been arrested or forced to resign. Erdogan has curbed the Army's political ambitions. The Turkish military is now demoralised, resentful and in no mood to help the Prime Minister.

Syria has skilfully exploited Turkey's domestic tensions. It has opened fire across the border killing Syrian refugees already in Turkey. Turkey expressed outrage, but did nothing. In June, the Syrians shot down a Turkish fighter jet over Syrian airspace, killing the pilots. Turkey threatened immediate consequences, appealed for help from its NATO allies and rushed more troops to the border. But that was all.

Syria has also resumed direct aid to the PKK, a sure way to anger Ankara, which sees any help for its Kurdish enemies as a direct attack on its sovereignty. Now the Syrian opposition claims that Turkey is moving its chemical and biological weapons to the borders to deal with any threatened intervention from outside. That can only be a direct challenge to Erdogan: intervention is likely to come only from Turkey, the only neighbouring country with an army powerful enough to beat the well-armed Syrian military.

Yet Erdogan appears powerless to go beyond threats. Domestically he is constrained: most Turks have no wish to get involved in the Syrian imbroglio. As a NATO member, Turkey is also limited by its Western allies from unilateral intervention. And it has promised not to do anything without UN Security Council backing, so far repeatedly blocked by Russia and China. Even the smuggling of arms to the rebels is constrained: only a certain amount of weaponry, largely supplied by the Gulf, is allowed to get through.

Erdogan has good reason to hesitate. None of Syria's neighbours want to see the violent collapse of the Assad regime, a widening of the civil war and rising sectarian strife that could lead to bloody massacres and streams of refugees across the borders. All are worried about the infiltration of the Syrian opposition by Islamist extremists and opportunistic terrorist elements from al-Qaeda. All know that the Assad regime, now in a deadly existential fight for survival, would not hesitate to use weapons of mass destruction against its perceived enemies, at home and abroad, whatever the official denials.

But a perception is growing that Erdogan's bark is worse than his bite, and that Turkey's vaunted military superiority in the region is a paper tiger. Such a perception would be fatal for his ambitions to bolster Turkish regional influence and power. Up till now, his commitment to the Arab Spring has not been tested. He has made a triumphant tour of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, urging these countries to follow the Turkish model of moderate Islamism.

Syria confronts Erdogan with a more brutal choice. Relations with Iran - where Ankara hoped to play a mediating role over Iran's nuclear programme - are likely to collapse. That will increase tensions on the border, but more importantly may spurt Tehran to start helping Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Relations with Russia will also suffer. In the past two decades these former Cold War enemies have become extremely close economic partners, with massive Turkish investments in Russia and huge numbers of Russian tourists visiting Turkey. And Erdogan's dream of re-establishing Turkish influence in Syria, once the jewel of its Arab provinces, looks shattered, no matter whether Assad prevails or the Islamist opposition wins.

Turkey has other options. It can refocus its policies on its European Union application, at present stalled by the Cypriot leadership of the EU and by the crisis in the Eurozone. It can build up relations with Turkic-speaking Central Asia. It can concentrate on its own extraordinary economic boom, which has put Turkey in the BRIC club of rapidly developing economies that have bucked the global recession. And it can continue to expand its influence in the Balkans and surrounding nations loosely joined together in the Black Sea alliance.

But the Syrian challenge is something that Erdogan cannot ignore. He has just announced a ban on trucks crossing into Syria, to tighten the economic squeeze. He has repeatedly voiced conviction that Assad will fall soon. So far, it looks like whistling in the wind. Unfortunately, in his frustration, his authoritarian instincts may prevail. Already there are worries about press freedom in Turkey and about the creeping Islamist agenda that political opponents say is being brought in by stealth. So far Erdogan has shown himself skilful statesmen, domestically and regionally. He must now clearly show that he can outwit and outlast the Assad regime in Damascus. 

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