ISTANBUL // As it bursts with self-confidence about its growing role in the Middle East, Turkey is unlikely to change its policies in the region as a result of sharp criticism from Syria and Iran. But Ankara is concerned about efforts by its neighbours to stir up Kurdish unrest, officials and analysts say.
"Our country's prestige is growing by the day," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said in a speech yesterday, adding he had witnessed that development himself during his recent trip to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, where he enjoyed enthusiastic receptions and "indescribable affection", as he put it.
Mr Erdogan shrugged off last weekend's rebukes from Damascus and Tehran. The government of Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, warned its neighbours against recognising a Syrian opposition group that was established in Turkey, while Iran said the Turkish government should stop promoting its own version of a secular Muslim state and market economy as a model for Arab Spring countries.
In a veiled reference to those complaints, Mr Erdogan said during his televised speech to parliamentary deputies of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that he was sorry to see that Turkey was the target of "unjust criticism", but that his country would stick to its policies.
"Turkey will do what its own principles and national interests call for and will continue along this path without diverting from its agenda," Mr Erdogan said. He underlined that undemocratic regimes in the region could not count on Turkish support. "In our book, there can be no legitimate government that is not based on the people and that uses violence."
But despite Mr Erdogan's robust defence of Turkey's unique approach to Middle Eastern issues, Ankara is watching statements from Iran and Syria very closely because it is concerned that governments there could try to stoke the flames of the Kurdish conflict inside Turkey.
"There is a fear that Syria will support the PKK," said Semih Idiz, a foreign policy columnist for the Milliyet newspaper. He was referring to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a rebel group that has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984. Syria gave shelter to the PKK leadership in the 1990s.
Officials in Ankara are also doubtful about Iran's role in the Kurdish conflict. A Turkish newspaper reported yesterday that Iran had recently captured Murat Karayilan, a top PKK commander wanted by Ankara, and set him free after two days instead of extraditing him to Turkey. Idris Naim Sahin, Turkey's interior minister, said the government would comment on the report "when the time comes", the NTV news channel reported.
Frustrated by the continuing violence in Syria and by what it sees as the regime's rejection of political reform, Mr Erdogan's government is preparing to announce a package of bilateral sanctions against Damascus, a former partner. Last month, Mr Erdogan publicly accused Mr Assad of lying to him.
"We cannot remain bystanders for much longer," Mr Erdogan told Turkish reporters during a visit to South Africa last week. The prime minister had been scheduled to visit camps for Syrian refugees in southern Turkey last weekend, but cancelled the trip after his mother died last Friday. No new date for the visit has been set. According to news reports, Mr Al Assad was among foreign leaders calling Mr Erdogan to express their condolences.
Turkey has begun to implement some measures against Syria, such as a ban on all arms shipments to Syria via Turkish airspace or territory and an increased support for Syrian opposition groups. Representatives of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) have asked for a meeting with Turkish foreign ministry officials, the Today's Zaman newspaper reported yesterday. Such a meeting would help the SNC, which was formed in Istanbul in August, to gain international status, a development that Damascus wants to avoid.
Turkish foreign ministry sources said yesterday they could not confirm whether the meeting would go ahead. The SNC unites major opposition factions, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Local Coordination Committees and Kurdish and secular activist groups.
While Syria is concerned about Turkish support for the SNC, Iran is uneasy about Mr Erdogan's promotion of the Turkish brand of secularism to the countries of the Arab Spring.
"Turkey is a democracy," a senior foreign ministry official said when asked for his response to the Iranian criticism. Mustafa Akyol, a newspaper commentator and the author of a newly-released book, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, said in a Twitter message that Iran had slammed Turkey "for all the good reasons".
Mr Idiz, the foreign policy columnist, said he did not expect Turkey to stop extolling its own model because of Iran's complaints. Mr Idiz told The National yesterday that Turkey was not particularly concerned that memories of Ottoman rule in the Middle East could be used to undermine its present-day policies as following "imperial intentions" in the region.
"What they have been promoting for Egypt and Syria are very much European values," such as secularism and individual freedoms, Mr Idiz said about Turkish government officials. Only Arab nationalists were likely to try to play the Ottoman card against modern Turkey, he said.