A no-fly zone in Syria “is something for the U.N. Security Council to decide,” Erdogan said last week from Berlin in comments representative of his toned-down posture, according to the Haaretz newspaper. “If the U.N. hasn’t made this decision, we have no authority, no right to declare such a zone in northern Syria.”
Erdogan, senior government officials say, remains fiercely committed to the eventual ouster of Assad, a onetime ally the Turkish leader now sees as too drenched in blood to stay in power. But he has proved unable to leverage diplomatic ties with Arab neighbors to hasten Assad’s departure.
Instead, with a limited range of options, Erdogan is renewing efforts to tap the Iranian government in Tehran — staunch Assad backers — in the search for a negotiated end to the violence.
“Turkey has been basing its Syria policies on the assumption that Assad’s departure was imminent, but it turns out he is still there and Turkey has been left alone by outside players,” said Yasar Yakis, an elder statesmen from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. “So it is only natural that Turkish leaders should look to revise their policy.”
The strife on the border comes as the economy is decelerating after a period of super-heated growth. Although the slowdown is partly by design, and Turkey’s still-robust economy remains envy of its European neighbors, analysts caution that growth here may yet undershoot government targets.
Stung by the euro-zone debt crisis, both foreign direct investment and capital inflows, for instance, have fallen by around 10 percent during the first eight months of the year. Although Turkey’s core industrial zones in the west remain largely untouched by the Syrian conflict, the once-thriving border economy is suffering a heavy blow to tourism and trade.
More urgently, the Turks are alarmed by indications that Syrian Kurdish groups sympathetic to the PKK — against whom the government fought a decades-long war — have reached an measure of agreement with Assad and are now governing pockets of northern Syria. The change has allowed Kurdish separatists to refocus their attentions on Turkey, with bold new attacks and a campaign aimed at kidnappings teachers and burning down schools.
But for Turks such as Melahat Forss — an Ankara teacher draped in the national flag Monday for the commemoration of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s founding of the Turkish republic — a greater concern under Erdogan is what secular critics call a heavy-handed Islamist orientation. “We are losing our country, our individual independence, because of this man,” she said.
The rise of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted party has brought many visible changes to societal norms in Turkey, destigmatizing — some say encouraging — the sight, for instance, of women in head scarves, even on the chic shopping streets of cosmopolitan Istanbul.
But Erdogan’s critics claim that he is using his office to personally promote religion. As an example, they point to legislation backed by Erdogan’s party lowering the legal age for enrollment in Islamic schools as part of an effort to broaden religious education. The government also stands accused of using the legal system to menace journalists, while opposition groups claim that evidence has been manufactured in the effort to root out secular army officials charged with sedition.
Erdogan backers counter that the criticism of secular society stems from the bias wealthy and urbane Turks have against the more devout underclasses. Erdogan, they insist, is merely making space in society for conservative and religious Turks.
“Turkey has become more democratic, not less” under Erdogan, said Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to the prime minister. “Ten years ago, girls in head scarves could not even go to university. Turkey is not becoming more religious, religion is simply becoming more visible.”
Sibel Utku Bila contributed to this report.