Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 March - 4 April 2012
Issue No. 1091
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Back from the abyss?

The government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may find it difficult to resist pressure for intervention in Syria, despite some powerful misgivings, writes Sayed Abdel-Maguid in Ankara

According to the Turkish newspaper Gunes this week, the Middle East is in the throes of a US-led conspiracy, of which the so-called Arab Spring is one symptom, with the US and its western allies using the slogans of democracy, freedom, and human rights to bend the region into the shape they want, creating a "Greater Middle East" out of the present chaos.

It is only a matter of time before the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad also falls, throwing Syria, like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya before it, into the cauldron of change, the newspaper said.

Opponents of the present government led by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been urging the country to distance itself from the "Western" designs on the region, contending that Syria will be gripped by full-scale civil war and that Ankara, too, could be sucked into the vortex.

According to Aksam, another Turkish newspaper, the West is deliberately provoking a crisis in Syria, and soon it will push Syria's neighbours, including Turkey, to send humanitarian supplies to the beleaguered population. In order to do so, Turkish army units would have to be sent into Syria, and this is something that Turkey should make every effort to resist, the newspaper said.

Gunes also recalled how damaging Turkey's acquiescence in the US-led invasion of Iraq had been for Turkey. Not only had the economy suffered, but separatists within Turkey had also taken heart from the turbulence on the borders, and secessionist groups within Turkey itself had become more active than ever before.

If the Syrian crisis was allowed to spill over into Turkey, the paper said, both security and the economy would deteriorate, and a recent meeting of Turkish foreign policy specialists had come to the conclusion that the best course for Ankara was to stay away from the "Syrian morass."

According to the specialists, among them former Turkish foreign ministers, Turkish involvement in Syria would endanger not only the country's 800-kilometre borders, but also wreak havoc deep inside the country itself.

Turkey, at the fault line of east-west confrontations before the country even acquired its modern name, is worried about what it sees as a volatile situation in the region that could lead to unpredictable outcomes. Turkey's present caution and isolationist tendencies are rooted in more than simply a knee-jerk reaction to the present situation, being determined by centuries of sectarian strife and human suffering.

In a region of immense ethnic and religious diversity, the western appetite for meddling can turn tragic, and not only for Turkey's neighbours, critics of the Erdogan government say. This is an argument that is all too familiar in modern Turkey, and it is one to which Erdogan himself subscribed up to the point when he became prime minister.

Even Islamist publications are now urging Erdogan to weigh carefully the consequences of any military intervention abroad, with the Islamist-leaning Milli Gazete saying that Turkish forces in Afghanistan are determined to continue their mission despite the recent deaths of 12 Turkish soldiers in a helicopter crash and suggesting that Turkey also consider sending forces to occupied Palestine.

Officials from the Islamist leaning Saadet Party were cited by the paper as saying that the Turkish government was not doing enough to promote peace and prosperity in Gaza, though mainstream Turkish analysts, while showing sympathy for the plight of beleaguered people elsewhere in the region, have stressed that they do not want to see the country embroiled in conflicts abroad, whether in Syria or elsewhere.

However, Erdogan may find it difficult to resist the dictates of NATO, should it push for intervention in Syria, since the Turkish government will have to take into consideration the wishes of its international allies.

For the time being, the Turkish government has embraced the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) and aided the leaders of the Free Syrian Army, now headquartered on its territory. The next move, some commentators say, could be to create a buffer zone along its borders -- something that the Erdogan government has not yet been ready to do, fearing a mass exodus northwards.

The Syrian issue has proved to be a thorny one for Erdogan, internationally as well as domestically, with the Justice and Development Party government having difficulty explaining its position on Syria to the Turkish public.

The recent killings of Turkish nationals by henchmen of the Syrian regime have not made things easier, with relatives of the victims blaming the government for failing to protect Turkish citizens.

Turkey will be hoping that the "Friends of Syria" conference, scheduled to open on 1 April in Istanbul, will come up with some practical solutions. The conference, to be attended by representatives of countries across the world, including US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, is expected to boost Erdogan's stature at home and in the region.

While a similar conference held recently in Tunisia produced little more than rhetoric, Turkish officials are hoping that this time round the outcomes will be different.

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