x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Turkey takes a leading role in the region but not everyone applauds

Turkey is fed up with Bashar Al Assad, but there are some significant constraints on what the Turks can do about the situation in Syria.

As the Arab Spring turns into a nightmarish autumn for Syria and its people, little is certain for either side of the conflict. Fighting - sometimes pitched battles - between forces loyal to the regime and a loose coalition of opposition groups continues, in what officials in neighbouring Turkey fear could have worrying consequences for the region.

Promises made by President Bashar Al Assad in front of the national assembly and on state television about reforms of the country's authoritarian political system have been repeatedly broken. Instead, with every promise came waves of repression, and more arrests, detentions, torture and extra-judicial killings. Any hope of a peaceful solution and any chance of reconciliation seem impossible. Do not expect South African-style Truth and Reconciliation committee where victims meet their tormentors, who then atone for their crimes.

Turkey's relationship with Syria also seems to be irrevocably broken. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who only last year was on the best of terms with Mr Al Assad, has openly accused the Syrian president of deception. Speaking to reporters in Istanbul recently, Mr Erdogan said that Mr Al Assad had lied to him personally. The Syrian president had assured him there were only 83 prisoners detained on political charges. "There are thousands of political prisoners," Mr Erdogan said. "[Al Assad] says, 'I will lift the state of emergency', but he is not serious."

The time for tactful diplomacy is obviously in the distant past. The same rupture has occurred in Damascus's relations France and the United States, whose ambassadors have both been threatened despite the diplomatic tradition of safety for foreign emissaries. But if US and French diplomacy is seen as foreign intervention, Turkey has immediate concerns along its 600 kilometres of border with Syria.

Despite strained diplomatic relations, people on both sides of the border continue to have close ties. Thousands of refugees were granted asylum in temporary camps in Turkey, just a few kilometres from the border. And both countries are affected by their vocal minority Kurdish populations.

Should border clashes continue unabated, Syria's Kurdish groups - many of whom have direct relations with Turkey's Kurds - will take action. That is one of the last things that Ankara would like to see happen.

The Syrian uprising has moved beyond political liberalisation to crystalise complicated religious and ethnic differences, particularly as the Alewite regime struggles to hold on to power.

Those ethnic rifts could extend to Syria's neighbours, as they are all well aware. Turkey's open support for the opposition, hosting an office in Istanbul, appears designed to bring some of those forces, particularly the Kurdish groups, within its influence.

Turkey is realigning its foreign policy more towards Arab and Muslim countries, a trend that became clear after repeated rejection of its efforts to join the European Union. But there are homegrown forces at work as well. Turks are looking over the border at fellow Sunni Muslims being killed by the Alewite regime. Ankara's change of direction in its foreign policy is partly explained as a realignment of its domestic politics. As one high-ranking Turkish official said: "The feeling of the people should be reflected in the country's foreign policy."

The point of course is debatable, as many Turks are not at all pleased that their country is being dragged into the Middle East quagmire - a bottomless pit that since the 1948 founding of Israel has sucked down everyone who has become involved. But in the last two years, Turkey has taken an active role in Arab affairs, from the Palestinian-Israeli dispute to Turkish participation in the military intervention in Libya to the current morass in Syria.

If the realignment of Turkey's foreign policy comes about as the result of demands from the Turkish electorate, there is nevertheless a number of people - found mostly among the better educated and non-religious groups - who remain opposed to Turkey getting back into the troubled Middle East. Some are saying that Mr Erdogan is taking the country down a difficult, perhaps even dangerous path. "The showman", as the prime minister is sometimes called, seems to be enjoying all of the attention.

And, as they say, the show must go on. Officials in Turkey fear that the worst is yet to come in Syria in the weeks and months to come, where the silent majority is still very silent. What is sure is that Ankara is listening to every word.



Follow on Twitter @Claudesalhani