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Global Geopolitics

Growing Public Discontent with Turkish Syria Policy

ANKARA, Sep 21 2012 (IPS) - Public approval of the Turkish government’s foreign policy has reached its lowest point – a mere 18 percent – in the past decade, according to a poll released here this week that showed only 18 percent of respondents said they favoured Ankara’s handling of the escalating sectarian violence in neighbouring Syria.

The results did not come as a total surprise, as the popularity of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in steady decline all year. But the position taken by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with respect to President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime has clearly exacerbated the growing discontent.

At the beginning of Syria’s internal conflict some 19 months ago, Erdogan and his influential foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, opposed any foreign intervention. Both men, as well as Turkey’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, made numerous trips to Damascus early in the crisis to try to persuade Assad to deal with the mushrooming opposition with compromise, rather than brutal repression.

At the time, Ankara had no interest in regime change. It had taken nearly two decades to achieve a rapprochement with Damascus, an effort sealed by the signing in 2009 of 50 bilateral commercial and security accords aimed at boosting Turkey’s exports to Syria, the Arab beachhead for Davutoglu’s “Zero Problems with Neighbours” policy, to five billion dollars a year by 2012.

But by mid-2011, Erdogan had turned against Assad, demanding that he step down as part of any resolution of an increasingly violent civil conflict.

Encouraged by the U.S., as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have together invested massively in Turkey since the AKP came to power in 2002 and have pledged to invest more than 12 billion dollars more this year, Ankara began providing refuge and support to the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), organisations composed of opposition figures and defectors from the Assad regime and army.

Erdogan’s exhortations, as well as Turkey’s backing for the two rebel groups, naturally antagonised Damascus; it also cooled off Ankara’s previously good relations wth Assad’s other foreign backers, notably Iran, Iraq, Russia, and China.

Their unhappiness has been manifested in a variety of ways. Diplomatic entente with Tehran and a booming trade with Baghdad have deteriorated, while Moscow and Beijing have discreetly advised Erdogan to drop any notions he may entertain of armed intervention to overthrow Assad.

Turkey’s opposition, represented mainly by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), was initially mildly critical of the AKP’s Syria policy. Committed to Kemal Ataturk’s doctrine of “Peace at Home, Peace in the World,” it wanted Ankara to remain neutral in the conflict next door.

Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and of the CHP, believed that the country’s territorial integrity would be preserved, so long as it stayed out of international conflicts.

Events since June, notably the growing flood of refugees seeking safe haven in Turkey and the dramatic intensification of hostilities between the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have made the Turkish opposition more assertive.

The PKK, considered a terrorist organisation by the U.S. and the European Union (EU), has been fighting the central government for most of the past 28 years. Over that time, the insurgency and Ankara’s efforts to defeat it have claimed some 40,000 lives, most of them civilians.

In the first 15 years of the conflict, at least 3,000 villages in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern part of the country were destroyed, while an estimated three million people were displaced.

With a combined population of about 30 million across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, Kurds – and their long-held dreams of self-determination – have long represented a threat to the four countries’ central governments. Of the four, Turkey has the largest Kurdish population – about half of the total.

In recent months, Erdogan and Davutoglu have accused Damascus, and to a lesser degree, Tehran, of providing refuge and material support to the PKK, although they have yet to produce hard evidence.

There is nonetheless a general suspicion, exploited by the CHP, that the PKK’s increased effectiveness – ambushes of Turkish soldiers and police have become an almost weekly occurrence, and some 700 people have been killed in the last 14 months – is directly related to the situation in Syria, including the de facto abandonment by the Assad regime of Kurdish areas along the Turkish border to local Kurdish militias, some of which have had close ties to the PKK.

According to the CHP, Erdogan’s bet on Assad’s swift demise was a strategic mistake. “The AKP’s policy on Syria has fully collapsed,” according to Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the CHP’s chief. “It is a short-sighted policy …influenced by other countries policies.”

Independent analysts say these attacks are taking their toll and may yet force in a shift by the government.

“We will probably see a change in policy in the next months, especially if Assad or his regime appears to be hanging on,” wrote Semih Idiz, diplomatic editor of Hurriyet. “It will manifest itself with more ecumenical initiatives that are more balanced and less one-sided.”

For his part, Erdogan has angrily rejected criticism of Syria policy, particularly by the CHP which he has begun labeling Turkey’s Ba’athist party, the name of Syria’s ruling party.

But, even among the AKP’s supporters, reservations about Erdogan’s policy have been growing.

“The Turkish government decided to support the opposition forces and gave up its ‘no problem with neighbours’ policy, replacing it with a ‘better relations with future neighbours’ policy, according to Kerim Balci, a prominent columnist for Zaman, Turkey’s largest circulation daily newspaper which has generally backed the AKP.

“This was a kind of gamble: if the opposition forces win in Syria, Turkey will be a big winner; but if they lose, or the chaos there continues into the winter, Turkey will lose much,” Balci went on in an email exchange with IPS.

“Turkish policy towards Syria is 100-percent legitimate but not that very well-calculated. Turkey should have kept its previous ‘on-good-term-with-all-sides-of-the-conflict’ policy towards Syrian regime and opposition groups and third parties related to the conflict.”

“On the other hand the Turkish prime minister is quite a pragmatic man. The minute he realises he is hurting his own political career, he will make a U-turn,” added Balci, who is also the editor-in-chief of Turkish Review, a foreign policy journal.

*Jim Lobe contributed to this article.

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