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Saturday, September 17, 2011

The View from Turkey: Syria and the PKK

There have been two puzzling changes in recent Turkish policy: The first is Turkey’s complete shift in attitude toward Syria’s President Assad, and the second is the seemingly bold declaration by Prime Minister Erdogan that the PKK will be reprimanded following the month of Ramadan, the religious holiday of the Muslims. To reconcile the suddenness of these changes, we could wait for the release of leaked diplomatic cables, or we could instead consider them in a broader global context to better understand the drivers behind them.

In the recent years, Turkey, under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has rallied a “zero problems” policy with its neighbors. The cornerstone of this policy was abolishing visa requirements with Syria and fortifying economic and political collaboration. Marked by multiple landmark visits between state officials and with heavy domestic promotion, relations with Syria flourished as the trade volume between the two nations reached $2.5 billion in 2010, representing a 43% increase over 2009. In 2008, Turkey brokered talks between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights territory and the two nations also collaborated on cracking down on their Kurdish minorities against a threat of cross border collusion.

Early this August, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu visited Syria’s Assad for a meeting, which marked a complete turning point in relations between Syria and Turkey. Turkey shifted its formerly friendly position by delivering a very tough message that instructed Assad to stop the savagery toward its own people. To understand the drastic and sudden change in Turkey’s position, we need to consider Syria’s own position and significance in the region and the implications of this for Israel and the US:

Syria represents a primary security threat for Israel, which keeps guard along the shared border: The Alawite Syrian career soldiers are closely aligned with the Assad regime and the Syrian investment in modern weapons to fortify defenses is also well known.

Historically, Syria has supported both the Hamas and the Hezbollah and has been dependent on its close ally, Iran. On the trade front, China and Russia have both been involved in Syria with key infrastructure projects. As an ancient point on the Silk Road, Syria represents an outlet to a large trading area for China, as well as a link between the Nabucco line and gas from Egypt and Iraq via a connection which was approved to be completed in 2011. In the short term, Syria would have been a recipient, but as Iraqi gas becomes available, the line would also serve Turkey and the EU via Syria. It is no coincidence that Russia has opposed the recent EU ban on oil imports from Syria. Because of Syria’s role as a potential gateway to the Middle East and the Mediterranean, for China and Russia, a presence in Syria offers the ability to grow both trade volumes and influence.

The factors that render Syria a potential political and economical hot pot in the Middle East gives the US the impetus to exercise a higher degree of authority over the Syrian regime, which it has tried by exercising influence through allies and is clearly unlikely to achieve with the Assad government in place.

On the US domestic front, the Obama regime cannot afford a direct involvement in Syria and must instead push its agenda through others, such as Turkey’s AKP. Leaked US diplomatic cables illustrate that Turkey’s cultivated “influence” over Syria was noted by the US as far back as 2009.

Syria’s relatively high military spending and capabilities mean that a direct intervention is unlikely to quickly bring in a regime change. The most viable strategy for the US remains a concentrated effort though its allies in the region to provoke and justify the Syrian protesters to continue demonstrations to overturn Assad.

Armed with the “Arab Spring” term properly coined and its winds of change beneath its wings, the USA is able to facilitate the regional powers to withdraw support for Assad. Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz made an anti Assad speech on August 8th and several Arab nations pulled their ambassadors from Syria within the same timeframe as Davutoglu’s visit to Syria.

From the Turkish perspective, things look different on the surface: AKP’s “zero problems policy,” aimed at establishing Turkey as a regional leader and a go to mitigator for western powers, is a role that Turkey vies for in order to manage power regionally. Parting ways with Syria and also alienating Iran therefore renders Turkey’s “zero problems” policy a failure and is an example of inconsistency for Davutoglu, the architect of that policy. What, then, has convinced the AKP to “sell the farm”?

Coinciding with the US’s efforts to topple Assad and with an announcement that the Obama regime is freezing Syrian assets, Turkey started an air raid of the Kurdish territory in Northern Iraq mid-August. This act essentially marked an end to the so called “Kurdish Opening”, a new policy Turkey’s Erdogan had declared a couple of years back in order to work to resolve the deep conflict between the state and Turkey’s Kurdish population.

While only a few years back, Turkey’s military activities in Northern Iraq would have categorically provoked a US reaction, today, a quiet nod is all the Turkish bombs received. The US State Department told the press that “...the United States recognizes the right of Turkey to defend itself against terrorist attacks”. With the rest of the international community turning a blind eye, the Turkish government is now able to attack the Kurds as it had been wanting to, but could not until the US approved of it.

For Prime Minister Erdogan, resolving the “PKK problem,” as it is defined domestically, would translate to increased domestic support and, in the long term, would usher a personal historic legacy. According to the bargain, Turkey is no longer expected to oppose sanctions against the Syrian regime- rather, we may see it side with the international community to cheer for Assad’s successor.

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