Turkey's second thoughts on Syria
Opponents of the Turkish government are blaming the US and Turkey for the crisis in Syria, writes Sayed Abdel-Maguid in Ankara
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has many friends in Istanbul, a city that she has visited both as first lady during the Clinton administration and more lately as a senior member of the Obama administration. However, as she looked out of her hotel window over the Bosphorus this week, discontent was brewing in the streets below.
In Istanbul's famous Taksim Square, secularist protesters had organised a rally to question the government's support for US policy on Syria, with some protesters going as far as to claim that the turmoil in Syria was a ploy by the US to throw the region into chaos.
The Anatolian Youth Association, a sworn opponent of the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party (JDP), maintains that the mayhem currently taking place in Syria has been at least in part fuelled by the misguided policies of the Turkish government.
Protesters rallying next to the Monument of the Republic in Istanbul warned the Arab countries against inaction over Syria, saying that the continuing bloodshed in the country was the result of US policies.
Some protesters accused the CIA of backing the Free Syria Army, now locked in deadly conflict with army units loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Most of the demonstrators in Istanbul were secularists concerned about the future of the region. Many are known to oppose the policies of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose model of government Washington thinks best for the region.
It is curious to see Al-Assad being supported by Turkish secularists, who generally disagree with his heavy-handed tactics. But this is not the only anomaly seen these days, since the Israelis, who also have no reason to love al-Assad, also dread seeing his rule come to an abrupt end.
As a result, Washington's policies on Syria are not getting the kind of regionwide support Clinton had hoped for, with the Turks having second thoughts and the Israelis being apprehensive.
According to former Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis, Israel is alarmed by the events in Syria. With the Muslim Brotherhood now in control of the Egyptian parliament, Israel is not eager to see the Islamists succeeding in Syria as well.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has been making noises about Israel's influence in Sinai, and an Islamist-leaning government in Syria could also start raising the issue of the Golan Heights, Yakis said.
A section of the Turkish elite has similar concerns, since sectarian strife in Syria pitting Sunnis against Shiites could easily spill over into Turkey, perhaps even fuelling the Kurdish secessionist movement.
Already many Turks fear that the Syrian crisis, if it is allowed to continue, could throw the whole region into chaos.
For the time being, Turkish diplomats seem unable to formulate, or defend, a clear policy on Syria. Ankara, which has backed the Syrian uprising, may not be able to maintain its current policies, and Turkish parliamentarians recently challenged the policies of foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu and demanded his removal.
The Kurdish question is also a source of concern, since ever since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the influence of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has been on the rise in Turkey.
The PKK, with friends in northern Iraq and potential allies in Syria, could now pose more of a threat to Turkish stability.
News that officials from the ruling Syrian Baath Party had been conferring with PKK leaders in the Qandil Mountains have been greeted with alarm by Turkish politicians, many of whom remember the days, not long ago, when Ankara and Damascus formed a united front against PKK separatists.
Now, instead of Syria and Turkey pushing the PKK to do their will, the PKK is doing the pushing. PKK officials are meeting regularly with Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, who has said that the two million Syrian Kurds may rise up against the Al-Assad regime in Syria.
Barzani is also believed to be training Syrian Kurds in guerrilla warfare.
The Syrian regime, alarmed by the prospects of a Kurdish uprising, has promised the Kurds self-rule if they desist from stirring up trouble in their areas. These promises have been relayed to the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, known to be close to the PKK.
With the Saudis now offering support to Syrian Sunnis, and Iran promising the same to Syrian Shias, Syria may be hurtling down the road to sectarian strife, which is not at all the outcome Turkish politicians have been hoping for.
Another complication concerns the Alevis, a sizeable minority group in Turkey estimated at upwards of 10 per cent or more of the country's population.
The Alevis, though not Alawites like the ruling group in Syria, are often confused with the latter, as both swear allegiance to Ali, the top figure in Shia Islam, and both share a distrust of the Sunnis.
Should the Syrian Alawites come to blows with the country's Sunnis, many say that the Turkish Alevis may take their side, which is another reason for Ankara to tread softly in Syria.