Turkey weighs options for dealing with Syria

IHA/AFP/Getty Images - Turkish military trucks carry missile batteries through Hatay Province, Turkey, on June 28, 2012. Turkey is sending missile batteries and army vehicles to the border with Syria as a "security corridor", almost a week after the Syrian downing of a Turkish military jet.

ISTANBUL — When Syrian forces shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet last month, Turkey vowed to take “necessary steps” and its prime minister declared Syria a “clear and present danger.”

Turkey reinforced its 550-mile-long border with Syria and declared new rules of engagement at the frontier. News media began running images of tanks, long-range weapons and troops being sent to the border.

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A look at the Syrian uprising one year later. Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international community for him to step down.
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A look at the Syrian uprising one year later. Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international community for him to step down.

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The incident underscored the deteriorating relationship between the two neighbors as Syria’s internal conflict threatens to spill over its borders. But while Turkey has made clear that it wants Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gone, analysts say that Ankara is still a long way from turning angry rhetoric into action.

“There is little risk of a direct unilateral intervention,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) think tank in Istanbul. “The risk is more of a cross-border conflict or individual incidents.”

Turkey allows the Syrian opposition to operate on its territory. But when asked whether Turkey was creating a de facto buffer zone for the rebel Free Syrian Army, a Turkish official declined to “elaborate on the matter.” The Turkish military also refused to comment on specifics of the new rules of engagement.

After days of accusations over the downed plane, Assad told Iranian state television last week that only an internal solution could resolve the conflict. “The policies of the Turkish officials lead to the killing and bloodshed of the Syrian people,” he said.

On Saturday, Turkey scrambled six F-16 fighters after Syrian helicopters came near the border, according to an announcement on a Turkish military Web site.

Syria would probably consider a buffer zone an act of war, and the Turkish government appeared careful with its words. However, in recent months, Turkish officials have acknowledged that they have drawn up plans for such a zone but say they do not want to act without the support of the international community.

Ulgen said the country was “aware of the limits imposed by the international context on Turkey’s actions” in Syria. But if faced with another incident, Turkish troops were likely to return fire or even cross the border for a short period to attack a target, he said.

“Again, that’s in reaction to an aggression from Syria,” Ulgen said. “The crucial factor is to eliminate the threat to Turkey.”

Turkey hosts about 33,000 Syrian refugees in camps along the border, and it fears that a greater influx could be destabilizing. Along with the downing of the plane on June 22, there have been several other cross-border incidents during the past six months, including one in April in which Syrian military gunfire struck a refugee camp and injured three people.

Some in Turkey are concerned that Syria could help rekindle Turkey’s 30-year-old conflict with separatist elements within its Kurdish minority.

A Turkish official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said intelligence reports suggested that the Assad government had allowed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a guerrilla organization fighting the Turkish state, to operate in northern Syria.

Turkey’s war against the PKK has left an estimated 40,000 dead since 1984.

Syria “shouldn’t dare to support the PKK. No country should support terrorism. Syria, in particular, should not dare to support it,” the official said.

Yet while the Turkish government supports the Syrian opposition, many here consider the Syrian crisis a domestic issue. A recent EDAM poll found that about 56 percent of respondents opposed intervention in Syria.

Safak Pavey, a parliamentarian from the opposition Republican People’s Party, said the policies of Turkey, a Sunni-majority country, toward Syria were ill-advised.

“For me, this is sectarian antagonism and empty-shell Ottomanism, which has no base or common sense behind it,” she said.

The Turkish government was acting in “solidarity” with the largely Sunni Syrian opposition, said Asli Aydintasbas, an influential columnist at the daily Milliyet. “There are no doubts that Turkey would benefit from regime change in Syria,” she said.

Turks may be skeptical of the government’s policies toward Syria, but a “public-opinion campaign” has not yet begun, Aydintasbas said. She added that while the government wants Assad gone, increasing its efforts to oust him did not necessarily require troops stepping over the border. Providing more aid to the Syrian opposition is “a kind of intervention that the public can stomach,” she said.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “has a huge sway over his own power base. He is really able to convince . . . voters in a way that very few can,” she said.

But in a country with its own complex sectarian makeup, there are warnings that the conflict in Syria could provoke tensions in Turkey.

Suleyman Yildiz, 29, a bank employee in Istanbul who is a member of the same Alawite sect that dominates the Syrian regime, has family along the border with Syria.

He said he was “scared” of the government and said it was pursuing a sectarian agenda in Syria that risked bringing violence to Turkey.

“The government is just thinking about its international position, but they also have to think about people that live in this place,” he said.

 
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