Syria casts shadow over Erdogan’s election victory. Analysis: James M. Dorsey


The risks for Turkey stemming from Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s escalating crackdown on anti-government protesters were evident Monday even as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrated his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) victory in Sunday’s parliamentary election.

Mr. Erdogan emerged from the election with a third term in office as the most successful Turkish leader in the history of his country’s multi-party democracy, but also increasingly aware that Turkey’s effort to insulate itself from the problems of its neighbors has been defeated.

Kurdish protesters and a bomb explosion that injured 11 people in predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey demonstrated the risk of Turkish Kurds demanding greater political and cultural rights being inspired by the resilience of Syrian demonstrators in the face of ever greater brutality. Camps on the Turkish side of the Syrian border for Syrians fleeing the crackdown in the town of Jisr al-Shoghour in northern Syria constitutes living evidence that Turkey’s influence is limited at best.

Syria’s impact on Turkey is compounded by the failure of Mr. Erdogan’s repeated attempts to convince Mr. Assad to travel the road of reform rather than that of brutality.

Mr. Assad promised reform but sent his troops to confront protesters instead. Syria’s judiciary, in a bid to restore some credibility and suggest that the regime is serious about investigating the violence in the country, on Monday banned travel by Brig. Gen. Atef Najib, the former head of the security department in the southern province of Daraa.

The Syrian uprising erupted in Daraa in March with the arrest of 15 teenagers who had scrawled anti-government graffiti. Protesters hailed the ban as too little too late.

As a result, Mr. Erdogan’s failure to convince Mr. Assad puts a serious dent in his policy of ensuring zero problems with Turkey’s neighbors. The policy was based on the proposition that Turkey could champion democracy in the Middle East and North Africa and at the same time maintain close political and economic ties to the region’s autocratic regimes.

Mr. Assad’s crackdown also heightens the risk of tension for Turkey with another neighbor, Iran, a staunch supporter of Mr. Assad, particularly if the turmoil in Syria were to spread into Lebanon or Iran or Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia were to become overtly involved in the violence in Syria.

If the Kurdish demonstrations highlight the risks for Turkey, the refugees represent both a risk and an opportunity depending on how Mr. Erdogan re-evaluates Turkish options in the wake of Mr. Assad’s snub. A review of Turkey’s policy towards the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the mass anti-government protests that have swept the region for the past six months tops Mr. Erdogan’s post-election foreign agenda.

Turkey has so far kept the Syrian refugees on its soil in isolation, preventing contact between them and journalists or the local population. But as the refugee problem grows and the Kurdish risk increases, Mr. Erdogan could opt to use the camps as a base to foster greater cohesion among Mr. Assad’s opponents in a bid to create a viable alternative to the Syrian president’s regime. Turkey last week hosted a conference of Syrian opposition figures.

Mr. Erdogan like US President Barack Obama and European leaders has condemned the violence in Syria, but stopped short of calling for an end to Mr. Assad’s rule because of the uncertainty about who would succeed the Syrian president. The prime minister hinted on the eve of his country’s election that he would talk to Mr. Assad in a “very different manner” after the election and condemned the crackdown in Syria as “inhumane, savage repression,” his toughest language yet.

Turkey may also consider establishing a buffer zone inside Syria to accommodate refugees and prevent a repeat of the fallout of the 1991 Gulf War, when 500,000 people flooded across the border from northern Iraq if the stream from Syria were to substantially increase. So far, only 5,000 Syrians have officially fled to Turkey. Another 5,000 are believed to be in the country without registration.

Hundreds more are reported to have massed on the border ready to cross into Turkey if the violence in Jisr al-Shoghour spreads across Syria’s north.

A buffer zone would meet resistance from Mr. Assad, and Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul denied that his country was considering a buffer zone at this point, saying, “It's not on the agenda right now.”

Perhaps, the most far-reaching effect of the creeping spillover into Turkey of the Arab revolt is that it is becoming more urgent for Mr. Erdogan to address the grievances of his country’s restive Kurds, who account for some 20 percent of the population. Resolving the Kurdish issue was a hot topic in the election campaign.

Mr. Erdogan can build on the fact that country's pro-Kurdish BDP party increased its presence in the new parliament. He is also likely to encounter less resistance to concessions to the Kurds from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which in a departure from its past support of military opposition to granting Kurds cultural and political rights fielded a well-known Kurdish human rights lawyer as its deputy leader. Candidates moreover were this year allowed for the first time to campaign in Kurdish rather than Turkish during the campaign.
Granting Kurds greater rights would be welcomed by Europe and work in Turkey’s favor in its negotiations to join the European Union.

Addressing Kurdish grievances, would also allow Mr. Erdogan to address the situation in Syria and Turkish policy towards an Arab world in turmoil far more unencumbered. It would allow Mr. Erdogan to live up to his post-election promise to be a humble and consensual prime minister, something his critics say he failed to do after the last election.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])