Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Turkey edging towards war

Alevis in Turkey lead protests as Kurds in Syria seize control of border regimes, adding to Ankara's worries, says Sayed Abdel-Maguid

Click to view caption
Turkish artillery stationed near Akcakale, on the Turkish side of the border fence, running left to right, near the Syrian rebel-controlled town of Tel Abyad

On Sunday, Ankara was once again the scene of a display of popular anger and discontent. Thousands of Turkish Alevis converged on the capital's famous Shiya Square to protest government policies. The demonstrations began with calls for safeguarding the secular character of the Turkish state and the protection of the rights of the Alevi minority, a Shia sect whose adherents in Turkey number around ten million. However, the repercussions of the Syrian crisis soon made their way into the heart of the protests.

This was perhaps to be expected now that the shadow of war has begun to hover of Anatolia in spite of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's vow that he had no intention of starting a war, even as he asked the people to prepare for the possibility that war might be forced on Turkey by Syria. If Syria abides by the rules of international law, the situation between the two countries would return to normal. However, if Syrian continues to fire missiles into Turkish territory, the Turkish response will be swift and decisive, he said.

The protesters' cries on Sunday were not the first to be voiced in connection with the war. Just two days before that, demonstrators staged a sit-in in the same square in protest against the parliamentary vote that gave the government a mandate to send forces into Syria. Protesters shouted slogans against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and imperialism. Their echoes were heard in Kadkoy, a district of Istanbul on the Asian shore, where police arrested dozens of demonstrators who had formed a human chain in protest against Turkey serving as an instrument for US policy.

Nor were Turkey's present and former capitals the only scenes of protest. In Akcakala in the province of Sanliurfa, in Reyhanli and Yayladagi in the province of Hatay, and in Nasaybin and Kiziltepe in the province of Merdin, there were more antiwar protests. What is particularly noteworthy is that all these towns are located near the Turkish border with Syria and have been shelled by Syrian missiles, one of which killed five people from the Sanliurfa province. Milleyet observed how difficult life was becoming for inhabitants in these provinces as fears mounted over the looming prospect of war with Syria. The Turkish newspaper noted that some families have moved to neighbouring provinces further away from the border and that the halt in the once thriving across-the-border trade was another incentive to move.

However, the demonstrators failed to answer the question as to what can be done to halt the missile fire that initially began with two missiles and that has since escalated, and one of which killed a woman and her four children. The Turkish government seems to have provided an answer of sorts, in the form of intensified military movements in the areas along the border with Syria, especially in the vicinity of Suruc in the province of Urfa. This is just across from the northern Syrian towns of Kamashli, Afrin and Ain Al-Arab which have been taken over by the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party, an extension of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Because of this connection, the Turkish military is taking extra precautions against terrorist attacks against military units long the border, which have already been reinforced with more quantities of heavy artillery, tanks and missile launchers poised on strategic locations and ready to respond to an offensive by Syrian forces.

But the more pressing question is what is happening in the border region which is becoming dangerously porous. What is the explanation for the sudden spillover of the civil war in Syria into Turkish territory? Is the valiant Syrian army growing desperate after a year and a half of failing to make even slow inroads against its enemies? Is it looking for a way to hold itself together now that it is showing signs -- according to some -- of disintegrating. Do the powers that be in Damascus believe that by dragging others into the fray of battle they will be able to generate an international situation that will prolong the life of the Baathist regime or at least improve the conditions for its departure?

Given that Iraq is an ally of the regime, that Jordan is too weak to bother with, that Lebanon is too complicated and Hizbullah is also an ally, and that Turkey is a cornerstone of NATO and Western policy, surely the two missiles that soared out of northern Syria and onto Akcakala, Sanliurfa, had not simply gone astray. Rather, these missiles were more in the nature of a trial balloon, let the pieces fall where they may and in the ensuing fracas people might overlook where they originated from. But it looks like the planners were careless, perhaps because of their desperation. Sophisticated radar systems had tracked these developments precisely and incontrovertibly, and Russia, normally among the regime's staunchest supporters, was furious. Rather than the defence that they usually received from Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergie Lavrov told leaders in Damascus to conduct an investigation into the incident, immediately.

Still, the missiles proved to be a kind of straw that broke the camel's back. Or perhaps more appropriately it broke the clouds of ambiguity and indecisiveness surrounding the Syrian stalemate which no one can afford for it to drag on for 15 years -- the length of the Lebanese civil war -- only for some other faction to put the crisis on hold but not end the tragedy. Therefore, officials in Ankara have now made the search for a solution to the Syrian dilemma one of their highest priorities. If some vague ideas were mooted here and there a few months ago, no one is mincing words anymore. On TRT Turkish state television on Saturday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged Syrian Vice President Farouk Al-Sharaa to assume control of the government in Damascus and head a transitional administration to end the Syrian conflict. Davutoglu suggested that it might be possible for the Syrians to strike a formula whereby Bashar Al-Assad would remain in the picture, but as long as the full powers of the president are transferred to Al-Sharaa.

The extent to which the Turkish foreign minister coordinated his position with other governments is unclear, but his remarks give the impression that some level of consensus exists. He said that there was an agreement with his counterparts in other countries, which he left unnamed although one can safely assume that they are influential powers, that Bashar Al-Assad had to step down. He added that the differences with Russia and Iran were confined to how to arrange the transitional period and that these two countries would prefer it if Al-Assad remained in power during that period.

In short, it appears that the Turkish solution for ending the Syrian civil war is a kind of compromise between the eastern Russian-Chinese-Iranian camp and the Western and Arab camp.

Davutoglu left no doubt that he believes Farouk Al-Sharaa is the right man for the job in Syria. He said that the had intelligence confirming that Al-Sharaa, who had long remained out of the public eye, had tried to defect several times, but unsuccessfully. The implication is that the vice-president would be acceptable to Syrian opposition groups and, simultaneously, that any quick and effective transition would have to take place in a Baathist framework, since the vast Baath Party network can not be uprooted from Syrian society.

It is difficult to disassociate the foregoing developments with the recent visit by the Iranian vice-president to Ankara, which happened to coincide with the Syrian missile fire across the border. It is no coincidence that when he returned to Iran, Mohamed-Reza Rahimi stated that the Syrian crisis can not be solved militarily and that sending more arms and equipment into Syria (to support the opposition) would only add fuel to the flames. He simultaneously condemned certain parties for trying to sew strife and dissension between the two Islamic capitals, Ankara and Damascus, by opening an arena of battle between them. Such "evil actions" had to stop, the Iranian official said, even if he omitted mention that his country has been, in one way or another, complicit in those actions.

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