x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Erdogan to visit Turkey-Syria border after shootings

The government in Syria is accusing Turkey of meddling in Syria's internal affairs by supporting the opposition to Bashar Al Assad, the president.

ISTANBUL // Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, is scheduled to visit his country's border with Syria Sunday as his foreign minister is caught up in controversy after saying Turkey would be the "owner" of the new Middle East.

The remarks by Ahmet Davutoglu stoked concerns that Turkey, a political and economic heavyweight, was trying to impose its will on the region, analysts said. The government in Syria is accusing Ankara of meddling in Syria's internal affairs by supporting the opposition to Bashar Al Assad, the president.

"We will continue to be the owners, pioneers and servants of the new Middle East," Mr Davutoglu told parliament in Ankara on April 26.

Sami Kohen, a foreign-policy columnist at the Milliyet newspaper, said Mr Davutoglu's vision of Turkey's role had raised eyebrows in the region. "The statement shocked many people because of the blunt way he put it," Mr Kohen told The National. "He more or less said: We are the boss. Those were very strong words."

Faced with criticism of following a "neo-Ottoman" approach in a region ruled by a Turkish empire for centuries, Mr Davutoglu quickly sought to reassure Turkey's neighbours that his country had no intention of erecting a new hegemony.

Turkey, the 17th largest economy in the world, a European Union candidate country and a Nato member with the second biggest armed forces of the alliance after the United States, has become more active in Middle Eastern affairs under Mr Erdogan's government. At the same time, the popularity of Mr Erdogan, a pious Muslim who combines populist positions with pragmatism, has soared in the region.

In his visit to the Syrian border, Mr Erdogan is scheduled to talk to Syrian refugees in a camp of prefabricated houses in the south-eastern province of Kilis, where two Syrians died in cross-border shooting coming from Syria last month. The shooting prompted Mr Erdogan to warn that Turkey could ask Nato for help if border violations continued. A fresh firefight between Syrian government troops and rebel soldiers broke out close to the border near the camp last Monday.

According to Turkish media reports, Mr Erdogan may use the visit, his first to the Syrian border region since the unrest in the neighbouring country began last year, to publicly call on Mr Al Assad to step down.

Turkey, a former ally of Mr Al Assad, says the Syrian government has lost its legitimacy because of its violent repression of a protest movement in the country that has killed more than 9,000 people since March last year. Mr Erdogan and other government officials have said Turkey does not exclude a military intervention in the neighbouring country to establish a safe zone for refugees inside Syria.

Initially caught off guard by the Arab Spring, Turkey has developed a new foreign policy approach that emphasises support for democracy in the whole of the Middle East. Ankara has recommended its own system - a Muslim, but secular state based on democratic principles - as a model for the region.

Mr Davutoglu told parliament in Ankara "a new Middle East" was being born with the toppling of authoritarian regimes in the region last year, according to the text of the speech posted on the foreign ministry's website. "The future does not lie in archaic regimes, it lies in the will of the people," the minister said.

"We as Turkey will lead the big wave of change in the Middle East, we will continue to be the pioneer of that wave of change," he said. People in the Middle East regarded Turkey as a "pioneer country of a new regional order", the minister said in response to opposition charges that the government was interfering in the internal affairs of countries such as Syria.

Mr Kohen, the foreign-policy columnist, said the speech caused concern among Arabs because a perception "of an interventionist attitude by Turkey and neo-Ottoman tendencies". The Turkish government clearly felt it had a mission to be a major player in the Middle East, he said. "But it was not good music to the ears of some leaders in the region," Mr Kohen said about Mr Davutoglu's speech. "They are wondering: What do they want to do with us?"

Many were reluctant to import Turkish structures, Mr Kohen said. "They are saying: We are trying to develop our own model."

In a speech in Istanbul on May 3, Mr Davutoglu insisted his vision for Turkey's role did not mean Ankara was trying to revive Ottoman policies.

Veysel Ayhan, an analyst at the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, a think tank in Ankara, said Mr Davutoglu's speech was a sign of Turkey's determination to have a say in the region.

"Turkey will play a very important role" in new political situation in the Middle East, Mr Ayhan said. "The minister indicated that this new order will not be built without Turkey."