Turkey's Role in the Syrian Crisis Goes Beyond Refugees

Facing an influx of refugees, Turkey condemns Syria's crackdown as "inhumane"

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As Syrian security forces launch what activists describe as a brutal "scorched-earth campaign" against the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shoughour, where the government claims 120 of its security forces were killed by "armed gangs" on Monday (activists and residents suggest the regime is covering up a mutiny, or simply lying about the attack to justify an assault), thousands of Syrians in the area are fleeing north to refugee camps on the Turkish side of the border, shown in this State Department map on right. Jisr al-Shoughour isn't pictured on the map, but it's between Latakia and Aleppo.

Not only has Turkey opened up its border to the refugees (pictured above on left in the town of Yayladagi) but Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (above on right), who last month described Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a "good friend" characterized Syria's crackdown on anti-government protesters as "inhumane" on Thursday and said Turkey could support a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the regime--something Russia and China oppose. Last week, Turkey even permitted a conference for the Syrian opposition on its territory. How should we interpret Turkey's new role in the Syrian uprising?

  • Arab Spring Stalled Rapprochement At The Christian Science Monitor, David Schenker explains that while Turkish-Syrian relations were long strained by a territorial dispute, they improved rapidly when Assad came to power 2000 and Turkey elected an Islamist government in 2002. But as the civilian death toll in Syria has mounted, Erdogan has grown frustrated by Assad's resistance to reform. Why would Erdogan, who stayed silent during Iran's crackdown on protesters and opposed military action in Libya, suddenly have a change of heart in Syria? The prime minister may be playing to popular sentiments ahead of parliamentary elections, Schenker reasons, or hoping that the Assad regime--dominated by the Alawite Shiite sect--is replaced by a Sunni regime. Or, he adds, "the massacre in Syria may have genuinely crossed the threshold of acceptability" for Turkey's Sunni Islamists, as they watch an "infidel Alawite regime in Damascus" kill "a thousand Sunnis." Whatever the reason, he concludes, Turkey's stance further isolates the Syrian regime.
  • Erdogan Is Walking a Fine Line Opposition leaders are attacking Erdogan and his government during the election campaign for not being tougher on Assad, The Wall Street Journal notes, but Turkey also has close diplomatic and economic ties with Syria as part of its new "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy.

  • Turkey Fears Instability Turkey, the Journal notes, is worried about a power vacuum--not to mention civil war--in Syria, which "shares borders with not just Turkey, but also Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq." The BBC adds that "one of Turkey's greatest concerns is that the unrest will destabilize Kurdish areas of Syria--which could then spill over into Turkey's own restless Kurdish community."

  • This Is About Geopolitics Why, former Indian ambassador M K Bhadrakumar asks at Asia Times, is Turkey "playing with fire?" In short, he says, "Syria stands right in the way of an expansion of Turkish influence in the Middle East" and "Syria's strong axis with Iran under Assad's leadership tilts the regional balance against Turkey," which has close ties with Saudi Arabia. "Despite the bonhomie" between Syria and Turkey in recent years, he adds, "there are very serious border disputes and quarrels over water-sharing which are dormant just below the surface."

  • But Turkey Is Only Willing to Go So Far Al Jazeera notes that Erdogan has pressured Assad to impose reforms but hasn't yet called for his departure (or sanctions against the regime, for that matter). At the Yayladagi camp today, the Turkish justice minister, Sadullah Ergin, demanded that Syria stop the violence against civilians but said Turkey didn't "even want to consider" the possibility of international military intervention, according to The New York Times. Al Jazeera Arabic, however, is quoting Turkish President Abdullah Gul as saying the country is prepared for all scenarios in Syria, including military ones. 

As analysts continue to dissect Turkey's moves, Al Jazeera has posted a video appearing to show Syrians displaced by the regime's military assault chanting, "You are the one who killed the people, leave, leave regime. God is greatest, Syria! God is greatest, freedom!" It's unclear whether the video was shot inside Syria or in Turkey:
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.