Young Turks and the Syrian spring

Since the day Turkish leaders decided to turn their attention to the immediate neighborhood while Europe kept them waiting, Turkey’s standing has gone from strength to strength in the Arab and Muslim worlds, even as it remains the only Israeli ally in the region and a member of NATO to boot. The more Turkey adopted regional causes, the more Washington and Tel Aviv worried.

It became clear that Turkey’s new position would be problematic for the US even before the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Refusing to allow NATO allies the right to fly over its territory, Turkey made its opposition to the war very public, winning it accolades and gratitude from Arabs and Muslims alike, who suddenly were discovering a country and a people who had been practical aliens a few years before.

In particular, it was during this period that relations started warming with Syria. Going from the brink of war in October 1998 because of Syria’s hosting of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, to the signing of the Adana Accords that same month, turning over a new page following Syria’s agreement to expel Ocalan, to the arrival to power of the AKP in 2002 and the leadership of Recip Tayyip Erdogan in 2003, there was an exponential improvement in ties between the two countries. With high profile state visits and warm relations between the Turkish and Syrian leaders, Turkey became ever more visible and audible in the region, which lapped up all things Turkish, from holidays to television serials dubbed in a Damascene accent.

With a regionally popular leader taking increasingly populist positions, Turkey found itself at the political helm of a region reeling from the scars of a brutal Israeli war on Gaza in 2008-2009. The mood was somber and spirits down, but when Erdogan walked out of a panel in Davos after having confronted Israeli President Shimon Peres over his lies on the war, the Arab world erupted into a virtual cheer and crowned Erdogan its instant hero and honorary leader.

The following year, when Israel hijacked a Turkish flotilla in international waters on its way to break the siege of Gaza, killing nine Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara, Turkish flags flooded social networks and Arabs expressed solidarity with the Turks who had so boldly demonstrated solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

And while various Arab potentates watched with shock and awe the scenes emerging from Tunisia and Egypt in quick succession, Turkey’s leadership dared to tell the dictators to snap out of self-denial and to simply go.

Indeed, the "Arab spring" was blowing its pleasant breeze of freedom while people in Turkey watched the revolutions and cheered from afar, beseeching their regional friends to attain liberation from outdated despotic regimes. All was relatively well with Turkey’s foreign relations. Until 15 school children fooled around by scrawling anti-regime graffiti on a wall, got jailed and tortured in Daraa, far away from the Syrian-Turkish border. Then all hell broke loose.

The "zero problem" foreign policy (save for Israel) that has served Turkey so well was suddenly undone by one huge problem: a close Arab and Muslim ally had turned its fire on its own people, repressing peaceful protests with tanks and guns. Not only didn’t the Turks like it, but they couldn’t remain quiet about it.

It was clear to everyone but the Syrian regime, apparently, that the Turkish government would never be able to simply look the other way and pretend it hadn’t noticed while remaining silent as the repression mounted and the killings intensified.

The high-level diplomatic hand that Turkey extended to Syria had no effect whatsoever on the level of repression. Consequently, the criticism emanating from various figures at the highest echelons of the Turkish government began to rise, and the diplomatic shuttling by senior intelligence and government officials to Damascus began to decrease in the face of stony silence from the Syrian regime and its complete disregard for the suggested urgent reform package that might have changed the course of the protests.

Having already inexplicably cut itself loose from major ally Qatar (thus losing the needed counter balance to Saudi Arabia and its allies), the Syrian regime was left with ever fewer allies, and none with the clout of Turkey. And while Qatar’s hypocritical position regarding Bahrain’s uprising was not at risk of being contested by the Qatari people, the Turkish government’s accountability to its own people continues to trump many other factors.

None of this should have been surprising or unexpected to the Syrian regime. Its reactions to various Turkish statements, however, were surprisingly amateurish and counterproductive. After Prime Minister Erdogan’s warning against another Hama massacre, the Syrian ambassador to Ankara claimed that this was political maneuvering from the government and pre-electoral pandering. Was he insinuating that the Turkish government’s closeness with the Syrian regime existed despite Turks’ dislike of it? And if the Turkish people had their way, would their government not pursue close ties with Syria?

This was not the expected response from a neighbor with whom visa requirements have been dropped and borders removed, and who had been a political and economic supporter for much of the past decade. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had already pledged Turkey’s support for the legitimate demands of the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria.

The Syrian regime’s brutal response to the protests has pushed its allies to a new brink. Turkey’s position should have been better managed and treasured in light of the cordial relations between the two country’s leaders, and the increasing ties between their business communities. As international pressure mounts on the Syrian regime, with sanctions imposed by both the US and the European Union, it remains to be seen whether and how damage control is possible after Turkey’s general election on June 12, and after the cessation of all violence against peaceful protesters. For the time being, "young Turks" all over Syria are still the subject of Ankara’s concerns.


* First published by the Bitterlemons International