Turkish officials stand behind their Syria policy, and the problems have posed little threat to the moderately Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan or to Turkey’s carefully cultivated popularity in the region. But as opinion polls indicate declining domestic support for the government’s stance, Turkey is finding it has limited room to manage fallout that analysts say it did not anticipate when it turned against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last year.
“Ankara now realizes that it doesn’t have the power to rearrange — forget it in the region, but also not in Syria,” said Gokhan Bacik, director of the Middle East Strategic Research Center at Turkey’s Zirve University. “So Ankara desperately needs American support. But American support is not coming.”
When a U.S. delegation visited late last month, the Turks made the case they had made two weeks earlier to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a senior administration official said: They were overwhelmed with Syrians, and they wanted the United States and others to establish safe areas, protected by a no-fly zone, for them inside Syria. Their limit, the Turks warned, was 100,000 refugees.
Clinton, confronted with emotional Turkish pleas, said that a no-fly zone would require major outside military intervention and that the United States did not believe it would help, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations. But rather than dismiss Turkey’s concerns outright, Clinton called for further bilateral discussions and an “operation and command” structure for the two governments to coordinate their responses to the crisis.
Turkey’s posture toward Assad is the result of an about-face. Before the uprising, Syria was the centerpiece of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy, and trade and travel between the countries flourished.
Now Turkey hosts the opposition Syrian National Council and provides a haven to the rebel Free Syrian Army and hundreds of defected Syrian soldiers. On Wednesday, Erdogan called Syria a “terrorist state.” The stance has boosted Turkey’s credibility in the Arab world but complicated its relations with Iran and Russia, which support Assad.
Turkey has constructed a string of 11 refugee camps along its border and is building more for newcomers, who the government says enter at a rate of 4,000 a day. Thousands are packed into public schools and dormitories, and hundreds of Syrians are being treated in Turkish hospitals.