Middle East

Erdogan’s woes snarl Turkey’s Syria policy

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) waves at supporters during a rally at Esenboga Airport in Ankara on December 27, 2013. (AFP PHOTO / MIRA)

BEIRUT: A corruption scandal in Turkey may see embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad outlast his Turkish adversary Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the latest sign Turkish foreign policy on Syria is undergoing a major recalibration, analysts say.

The corruption inquiry, which forced Erdogan to reshuffle his government after three ministers quit and has implicated his own son, has thrown Turkey into an unprecedented political crisis. Erdogan has vowed to fight was he says is a coup attempt choreographed by his rivals.

“This is a grave and serious challenge to Erdogan’s rule,” said Sinan Ulgen, the chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies EDAM think tank and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

“If I were to speculate, I would say Erdogan has been weakened to the point of holding early elections, which will also have a bearing on foreign policy, particularly in Egypt and Syria,” he added.

Former ally Turkey emerged as the most vocal opponent of the regime in Syria, which, after protests against Assad’s rule were brutally repressed by government forces, has become mired in an all-out civil war. Erdogan was one of the first international leaders to call for Assad to step down. Turkey also hosts some 600,000 refugees and has also provided safe haven and material assistance to Syrian military opponents.

More recently, Turkey’s apparent open door policy to rebels crossing the border to fight Assad has drawn criticism both at home and from its Western allies for allegedly providing a base and military assistance to radical Islamists affiliated with Al-Qaeda to launch their attacks.

Those concerns have seen Turkey adjust its policy on Syria by tightening border security and boosting intelligence operations, in what analysts say reflects an embarrassing about-face once it became apparent that Assad’s regime would not fall as quickly as Ankara had hoped.

In the wake of the scandal, and in the lead up to local elections in 2014 and parliamentary polls in 2015, those foreign policy considerations are likely to be revisited.

“The government policy on Syria was never popular,” Ulgen said.

“Now there is a greater awareness that this indiscriminate policy may have undermined Turkey’s own security. It’s created a security vacuum, and on top of that, Turkey has not even managed to oust Assad.”

“That’s also the line that the [Turkish] opposition will be adopting.”

In an “unfortunate” turn of events, he said, “Assad may manage to win popular elections in 2014, while Erdogan could end up losing in Turkey.”

The scandal is adding to pressure on Erdogan, already reeling from weeks of violent anti-government protests in July that began over redevelopment plans for a central park, and spiraled in to general calls for him to stand down over what is perceived to be the growing authoritarianism of his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP). Demonstrators then also marched against the government’s policy in Syria.

While the left-wing opposition remains weak in Turkey, the anti-intervention position on Syria is likely to gain traction and party support is strongly divided over the Syria refugee issue.

That raises the potential for a wave of anti-Syrian rhetoric and hostility toward the 600,000 refugees in Turkey, Ulgen said, similar to the backlash against Syrians that occurred in Egypt following the military’s post-revolutionary coup.

A public opinion poll conducted by EDAM to be released in January found that 86 percent of participants agreed that no further Syrian refugees should be allowed in the country, while only 11 percent believed Turkey should continue to take refugees.

Moreover, the poll found a sharp difference in responses between party bases. Supporters of Erdogan’s AKP and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) preferred the idea that Syrian refugees be taken in without conditions, or that a threshold be set for the number of future Syrian refugees.

In contrast, supporters of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) preferred that Turkey stop taking in Syrian refugees and send back those currently based in the country.

The poll had a sample size of 1,515 people representing Turkish citizens over the age of 18.

“There has been a policy rebalance on Syria that is likely to continue, no matter what happens domestically,” Ulgen said.

Soli Ozel, a columnist for Haberturk newspaper and a professor of international relations and political science at Istanbul Kadir Has University said while Syria was unlikely to figure significantly in the current domestic crisis, Erdogan had failed to heed warnings about the issue.

“The opposition was against the government policy on Syria from the beginning and, given the results, a lot of their warnings were justified. The government didn’t heed those calls,” Ozel said.

But he said despite an “uneven contest” between CHP and the AKP, “I personally don’t believe the opposition is doing a very good job of taking advantage of this [corruption] crisis.”

Ozel added that he feared hostility toward Syrians would increase.

“The unofficial figures say there are 1 million Syrians here. They are scattered all over the place, they are dirt poor, they are working at a fraction of the price than the Turks doing the same job. Sooner or later it will cause social tensions and this government has done nothing to address that.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 28, 2013, on page 10.




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