Turkey protests put strain on Syria planning

The Obama administration’s decision last week to send weapons to Syrian rebels has made the United States more dependent than ever on Turkey — at the same time that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ability to act on Syria may be newly constrained.

The protests rocking Turkey this month have given new life to old grievances among those opposed to Erdogan, and his active support for the Syrian rebels is on the list. Now, as the United States needs Turkey’s help to get weapons into the hands of those fighters, Erdogan faces the threat of more street protests the moment he pursues unpopular policies.

In fiery speeches, the Turkish leader has vowed to continue targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and top U.S. officials have spoken to their Turkish counterparts repeatedly in recent days to coordinate Syria policy. But with a refugee crisis along the Turkish-Syrian border and increasing Syria-related violence on Turkish soil, many Turks say they wish their leader had never become embroiled in the sectarian conflict next door.

The need for Erdogan’s cooperation on Syria has tempered the Obama administration’s repeated condemnations of police violence against Turkish demonstrators, analysts say, despite U.S. surprise at his hard-line approach toward those who have turned to the streets primarily to protest encroachments on personal liberties. As the United States and Turkey’s government navigate what comes next, many demonstrators say that a mental barrier to voicing dissent has been broken, even as Erdogan and his associates have blamed terrorists, foreigners, Jews and news organizations for stoking unrest in the country.

From now on, “anytime the government comes up with a controversial policy, it will find opposition on the streets, organized through demonstrations,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. On Syria, he said, “Turkey and the United States will compete to lead from behind,” cautiously inching forward on involvement while allowing other countries to go further in their commitments to the rebels.

The political and human risks of Erdogan’s support for the Syrian rebels were underlined May 11, when two car bombs killed at least 52 people and injured more than 140 in the border town of Reyhanli. Erdogan swiftly blamed Assad’s security forces for the attack, and although Turkish officials have offered no definitive evidence, the conclusion is widely shared among Turks, who cited it as one reason for their objections to Erdogan’s Syria policy. The 363,000 Syrian refugees on Turkish soil are another, with many Turks voicing sympathy for the displaced Syrians but saying there are scarce resources to deal with the influx.

Residents of a town near the border with Syria say tensions are rising.

“Hatay is becoming a city of war because of Erdogan’s policies,” Akin Bodur, a local journalist, said by telephone.

Now Erdogan’s freedom to do as he pleases on the Syria issue will be limited, some analysts say.

On Syria, Erdogan’s “wings have been clipped,” said Osman Faruk Logoglu, a deputy chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party and a former ambassador to the United States.

That was evident, Logoglu said, after the United States said the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons, crossing a “red line” that President Obama had set. “Normally [Erdogan] would have said this is the time to take more action against Syria. We haven’t seen that,” Logoglu said.

Erdogan’s ‘aura is gone’

The intersection of the protest movement with Obama’s policy change on Syria has created a quandary for U.S. officials, analysts say, with unhappiness about Erdogan’s crackdown mixing with surprise that a leader they considered a consummate politician would react as he did to the challenge to his decade-old rule.

“The perception of Erdogan in Europe and the United States has dramatically shifted,” said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University who worked at the State Department under President Bill Clinton. Washington “respected the fact that these guys were supreme politicians. Now that aura is gone, because Erdogan really did miscalculate.”

The domestic pressure may actually push Erdogan to be less, not more cautious, in his desire to remove Assad from power, Barkey said, and lead Turkey to push arms shipments toward the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, considered the best-organized rebel fighting group in Syria.

“The danger to me is, will he decide this has lasted too long and help whoever is able to fight?” Barkey said.

Delicate situation for U.S.

U.S. officials are weighing how to handle Erdogan, whom they feted in Washington just last month. Early in the protests, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said he was “concerned” about reports of police violence. Vice President Biden also voiced worries.

But many direct discussions have concentrated on Syria. Last week, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay was in Washington to meet with top U.S. security officials.

Syrian issues dominated Kerry’s phone conversation with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Saturday, according to State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki. Just hours later, police started using tear gas and water cannons to clear Istanbul’s Taksim Square and adjoining Gezi Park of protesters, initiating a still-unfolding crackdown in which dozens of doctors, lawyers and political opponents have been detained.

And a Wednesday statement from Frank Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, was far milder than previous U.S. assessments of the protests.

“I’m very confident about Turkish democracy,” Ricciardone told Turkish journalists in Ankara after meeting with a senior adviser to Erdogan. “You are having a conversation within your Turkish family. The United States is not participating in it, except the full-out faith in you, the Turkish people, and the Turkish government.”

European condemnations have not been similarly restrained, leaving Turkey’s prospects for joining the European Union in doubt and the fate of British and French cooperation with Turkey on Syrian issues uncertain, analysts said.

But with the E.U. already unpopular in Turkey, the new tension helps rally Erdogan’s base despite his nominal desire for membership in the bloc. He considers his relationship with Obama far more precious than that with any European leader, according to Erdogan officials and Turkish opposition leaders, perhaps giving the United States extra leverage.

“Erdogan takes heed of Obama,” said Sedat Ergin, a columnist at the daily Hurriyet newspaper who has written about the relationship between the two leaders. “But the president has refrained from using this margin at the expense of U.S. interests in the region.”

Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.