Turkey: Free Passage to al-Qaeda and Internal Unrest

On September 16, 2012, in letters to the U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said Turkey allowed “thousands of al-Qaida, Takfiri and Wahhabi terrorists” access to the country in order to “kill innocent Syrians, blow up their properties and spread chaos and destruction,” reported Associated Press.
Syrian authorities blame the anti-government uprising that began in March last year on a foreign conspiracy and accuse Gulf countries Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with the U.S, other Western countries and Turkey, of offering funding and training to the rebels, whom they describe as “terrorists.”
An increasing number of “foreign elements” including jihadists are operating in Syria, an independent U.N. panel confirmed on September 17 in its first report to say that outside “terrorists” have joined a war spiraling out of control.
The investigative panel appointed by the Human Rights Council said some of these forces are joining armed anti-government groups while others are operating on their own. “Such elements tend to push anti-government fighters towards more radical positions,” the head of the panel, Brazilian diplomat and professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, told diplomats. He referred to the foreigners as “terrorists,” though the word did not appear in the written report, according to the Associated Press.
Turkey serves as headquarters for the leaders of the Free Syrian Army rebels and hosts many meetings of the Syrian National Council opposition group. Before the Arab uprisings, economic and political engagement with Syria was a centerpiece of Turkey’s regional strategy. Visa restrictions were lifted and trade increased. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad even vacationed together. Initially, Turkey urged dialogue and reform in Syria, but as the killing increased, Turkey turned against the government.
That shift was part of its broader regional strategy. Last year Erdogan toured Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, offering Turkey’s support for the democratic aspirations of the Arab world’s revolutionaries, and holding up Turkey’s mix of Islam, democracy and economic prosperity as an inspiration for those countries in turmoil.     
Analysts say Turkey has hardened sectarian divisions in the region by working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in backing Syria’s Sunni rebels against Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and by supporting Sunnis in Iraq against the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite. And tensions with Iran, the region’s largest Shiite power, have been heightened since Turkey agreed to allow NATO to place a radar station on its territory as part of a missile defense system.
Selcuk Unal, the spokesman for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, acknowledged that the Syria policy had become a domestic policy issue. Even though it may not be popular, he said, “that doesn’t mean it is wrong.” He insisted that “Turkey is on the right side of history on this.”
As reported by “The New York Times” on September 19, “the Turkish government is facing a spasm of reproach from its own people over its policy of supporting Syria’s uprising; hosting fighters in the south, opposition figures in Istanbul and refugees on the border; and helping to ferry arms to the opposition. While many Turks at first supported the policy as a stand for democracy and change, many now believe that it is leading to instability at home, undermining Turkey's own economy and security.”             
Perhaps causing the greatest unease for Turks these days is an increase in violence by Turkey’s separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K. More than 700 people have died in the past 14 months, the deadliest level in 13 years, according to a report published last week by the International Crisis Group. The P.K.K. has now set up daylight checkpoints in villages in the southeast, carried out deadly ambushes against Turkish forces and kidnapped lawmakers. Recently, the Turkish military carried out an offensive involving F-16 fighter jets and 2,000 soldiers, Reuters reported.       
The Assad government has effectively ceded some territory near the Turkish border to Syria’s Kurds, who have not joined the opposition in large numbers. These gains seem to have fanned the flames of Kurds’ historical ambitions for an independent state that would include Kurdish areas in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran.       
An influx of refugees — more than 100,000 Syrians have sought safety in Turkey — has tested government resources and raised tensions in border areas, prompting the Turkish government to try to relocate refugees further inland. The government has said it has spent $300 million providing for refugees and has complained of a lack of support from the international community.
Turkey’s ambitious Middle East policy has been centered on Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s much-heralded vision of “no problems with neighbors.” But that approach has stalled amid the hard realities of the region and the limits of Turkish power, most evident in its policy in Syria. Now the joke is that there are “no neighbors without problems.”              
“Turkey’s Syria policy has failed,” wrote Dogan Heper, a columnist for the newspaper “Milliyet.” “It has turned our neighbors into enemies. We have been left alone in the world.”

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