Turkey is in danger of being dragged deeper into the Syrian quagmire. The mood in the country is sombre after the cross-border shelling and loss of life on both sides. Over the past few months the near-unanimous enthusiasm for the support Turkey has given the Syrian opposition has gradually given way to a more reflective mood, as the negative consequences of such involvement have become increasingly clear.
Turkish backing for Syria’s democratic movement was both idealistic and realistic. The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) felt that its own legitimacy, which rested on its democratic credentials, could be seriously eroded if did not extend support to the movement next door. Ankara also calculated that its long-term economic and strategic interests were best served by supporting the opposition in the hope that transition in Syria would be quick, and the successor regime beholden to Turkey for its support. Ankara also wanted to send a message to Washington that – despite differences with the United States over Israel’s occupation of Palestine and Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme – it was still in the western camp.
For a while things seemed to go as planned; but then events took a very different turn. The Syrian democratic movement transmuted from a civil opposition to one of armed rebellion, with a number of groups – including Salafist jihadists armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar – engaging in ruthless confrontation with the state’s security forces, leading to the loss of thousands of lives. Moreover it became clear that Turkey, as well as other powers, had vastly underestimated the staying power of the Assad regime and its willingness to leave behind an anarchic mess rather than accept a smooth transition of power.
Turkey also found itself caught in a regional cold war between Saudi Arabia – paradoxically a leading supporter of the democratic opposition – and Iran, Assad’s staunchest supporter. This jeopardised Turkey’s relations with Iran, a major supplier of its energy.
Above all, Turks became increasingly aware of the conflict’s damaging consequences for their own society. Turkey’s active support for the anti-Assad rebels has widened its own sectarian divide between the majority Sunnis (who support the predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels) and minority Alevis, who are sympathetic to the Alawite-dominated Assad regime. The Alevis, who identify Sunni dominance with the governing AKP, recognise a similar problem faced by Syria’s minority Alawites confronting a predominantly Sunni rebellion. This explains in part the opposition of the major opposition party, CHP, which draws upon Alevi electoral support, to the government’s unbending anti-Assad posture.
Turkey’s perennial Kurdish problem also risks being exacerbated. Kurdish factions in Syria linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) now control parts of northern Syria that could become havens for PKK terrorists, including many who have moved out of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey’s decades-long policy of winning over the Iraqi Kurdish government to its side against the PKK is in danger of unravelling.
The most recent incidents make this dangerous situation even more combustible. On Thursday the Turkish parliament voted to authorise military action in Syria – although a senior adviser to the prime minister said that “Turkey had no interest in a war”. Nevertheless the country risks being dragged into a regional conflict without adequate forethought and with unpredictable consequences.
The other major supporters of the Syrian opposition, Saudi Arabia and the US, have the luxury of going “home” and leaving Syria to its fate if the situation there becomes completely anarchic. Unfortunately, being next door Turkey does not have this luxury. It is imperative, therefore, that Ankara tread very warily and undertake a major reassess its involvement. Otherwise, the Syrian mess could become a Turkish mess as well.
Mohammed Ayoob is distinguished professor of international relations and co-ordinator of the Muslim studies programme at Michigan State University, in the United States.