Wednesday’s mishap by Syrian forces, which saw a mortar shell land in the Turkish town of Akcakale, killing five, has put international attention firmly on the Syrian crisis. For months analysts and diplomats have warned of the possibility of regional spillover if the uprising in Syria was not quickly dealt with. Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey all have historical ties to Syria, in addition to sectarian and tribal linkages. These factors necessitate, with a drawn out conflict in Syria that the above mentioned states will be, in one way or another, drawn into the fray.
Lebanon has already been witness to sectarian strife in the northern city of Tripoli and Iraq has been subject to a sustained al-Qaeda linked bombing campaign, which may or may not be linked to the uprising in Syria. In terms of violence, Turkey has for a large part been spared the fate of Syria’s Arab neighbours until the mortar fire on Akcakale this week. But for what the Turkish state has lacked in terms of overt violence, it has made up for with both economic and political pressure. Turkey now hosts nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees, putting a strain on Ankara’s economic performance. According to Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, who was quoted in September, the cost of housing more than 70,000 Syrian refugees was 300 million USD. This number has already increased as an additional 30,000 refugees have found their way into Turkey, with more to come–an estimated total of 700,000 into neighboring countries.
Domestically, the ruling Justice and Development Party ( which goes by its Turkish acronym AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his skillful Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have been put under pressure by both opposition parties and the population on the border for their handling of the situation in Syria. This latest incident, coming after previous artillery mishaps in Turkish territory and the downing of a Turkish jet by Syrian air defences on June 22, has strengthened Turkish opposition to involvement in what has for all intents and purposes become a civil war. Given international pressure, Wednesday’s mishap guided Erdogan’s hand to take decisive retribution against Bashar al-Assad’s forces. With previous violations of Turkey’s sovereignty and an overt attack against its air force, it was just a matter of time until an additional provocation would lead to heightened tensions along the shared border.
Under the new rules of engagement, put in place since the downing of the jet, the Turkish military has launched an almost daily barrage against Syrian positions, guided by radar installations. Further exacerbating the situation, Turkish army reinforcements have now been stationed near the border as additional shells have missed their mark, landing near Turkish towns, with intensified fighting in Syria’s Idlib province. Retaliation by Turkish forces purportedly led to a Syrian army order for troops to pull back 10km from the shared border. This has also allowed for immense rebel gains along the border, with Syrian activists now stating that roughly eighty percent of towns and villages in the area are now out of government control. As previous insurgencies have shown, the control of border areas, particularly with friendly neighboring states, provides opposition groups with a variety of benefits. Unfettered access to arms, men and monetary support, not to mention the ability of intelligence services to easily slip across the border, all bolster the fighting capacity of the Free Syrian Army.
On the political front, two initiatives have been set forth by Ankara, highlighting the increased tension with Damascus. The first of which was the passing of a bill on Thursday, overwhelmingly approved by Turkish parliament, allowing cross-border operations by the Turkish military. The bill, similar to another that authorizes incursions into northern Iraq against Kurdish separatists, was a strong indication that Turkey will no longer seek a multilateral approach in dealing with Syria. This move by parliament was followed by a very strong statement by Foreign Minister Davutoglu, who, on Turkish television, called on the most senior Sunni Muslim figure, Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa, to head the post-Assad transition. As activists within the country have said that al-Sharaa is under house arrest, following a failed defection attempt in August, Davutoglu’s statement was in part meant to show Assad that Turkey is fully committed to his downfall.
Over the past 19 months, the Justice and Development Party has attempted to utilize international forums, including NATO and the UN, to address the situation in Syria. In April, after Syrian mortars fell in southern Turkey, Erdogan threatened to approach NATO and invoke the Alliance’s collective defense clause. Article 5, which states “an attack on any member shall be considered to be an attack on all,” was not invoked, and NATO member states quickly moved to stop this escalation in rhetoric, while merely condemning Syrian “attacks” on Turkish territory. The downing of a Turkish F-4 fighter jet by the Syrian army on June 22 also led to a similar statement by NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who ensured that the organization stood in solidarity with Turkey. Rather than invoking Article 5, a meeting was held under Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty, which states that “any country may consult fellow member-state if it considers its territorial integrity, political independence, or security to be under threat.” It was the same article under which NATO met at the ambassadorial level this week after the attack on Akcakale, leading to another strong condemnation of Syria, nothing else more.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s speech at the UN Security Council on August 30 summed up Turkish frustration with the international stalemate on the Syrian crisis and the lack of support from Ankara’s allies. Davutoglu asked the Council, “How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and deliberate mass targeting?” It seems as if the answer is 19 months or longer, probably until the rebels end the onslaught themselves. The Turkish Foreign Minister made it clear that the Syrian crisis, left unchecked, was growing immensely to the point that Ankara has found itself increasingly challenged to deal with both security concerns and the flow of refugees. Overall, as Davutoglu stated, “there is an increasing sense in Turkey that, by making such a sacrifice and tackling an enormous issue all by itself, we are leading the international community to complacency and inaction.” This is a troubling depiction of the position in which Ankara finds itself now.
It is highly counterproductive to make an ally of the West, particularly one that is part of the world’s longest lasting defence pact, feel alone and largely discarded. Turkey’s decision to support Syrian protesters rather than siding with Bashar al-Assad, a ruthless dictator whom the AKP had been pursuing a rapprochement with, was in part a move to reach out to the West. As Mohammad Ayoob states in his article for The Guardian this week, “Ankara 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 program—it was still in the western camp.” Furthermore, the AKP, knowing that its democratic attributes would be damaged by inaction on Syria, showed its commitment to these values by standing up for those calling for a representative system next door.
While the AKP is hardly a group of Jeffersonian democrats wishing to create a model similar to the United States, the party’s version of “Islamic light” is probably one of the best options for reconstituting the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. A mixture of Islamic tenants and guidance, fit within democratic institutions familiar to the West, presents the best and most appropriate way forward. The fear of any flavor of Islamic governance, whether due to the revolution in Iran or the Wahhabi preaching of Saudi clerics, is largely overblown. Fanatical leaders will largely not emerge and their moderate cousins aren’t bent on taking over the electoral system and ending the democratic process, as many still fear after Algeria’s civil war, which lasted from 1991 until 1999, the catalyst for which was an Islamist electoral victory.
The fact is Islamic light is here to stay, whether in Cairo, Tunis and maybe even in Damascus. It should not be feared; rather it should be embraced by the West. The democratic results of Arab elections must be respected, as much as it may be met with some chagrin in Washington and London. Who best to help the West in this endeavor? The answer is of course Turkey. Given Ankara’s historical linkages to the region, large scale development and aid projects to the Muslim world, a resounding respect for both Erdogan and Davutoglu among the Arab populace, not to mention the “Islamic light” alternative to Saudi Wahhabism and jihadist indoctrination, the West must stand behind its ally. As an historical bridge between two cultures, Turkey has a crucial role to play in the Arab Spring, one that must be acknowledged by the United States and Ankara’s NATO allies. Short of intervention, which any critical observer of the Syrian crisis would warn against, there is much that can be done to alleviate the pressure on Turkey.
Ankara must be made to feel that its allies are fully supporting it against flagrant violations of its sovereignty by the Syrian regime. While condemnation against the Assad regime has already come from the Security Council in light of the mortar attack on Akcakale, it is not enough. Turkey’s NATO allies must do more to covertly help the professional and secular elements of the Free Syrian Army in combination with the country’s security services. The quicker the Assad regime falls, the less chance of prolonged regional spillover and increased radicalization. To this extent, Western powers and individual donors must focus on the refugee situation, by providing more funds not only to UNHCR in Turkey, but also to the various aid agencies in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Only when the AKP and the Turkish people feel that their NATO allies are fully supporting them with the Syrian crisis can a robust and mutually beneficial relationship begin to develop again.