Turkey’s support for the Syrian rebels in the neighboring country’s civil war has led to a policy of choosing between “bad and worse”, say analysts urging Ankara to come up with an impartial approach to the crisis.
The Islamist-rooted government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shunned dialogue with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and explicitly called for his ouster after diplomacy failed to convince him to adopt democratic reforms.
And Turkey, already home to thousands of Syrian refugees, has also become a base for Syrian rebels and army defectors who form the very core of the opposition Free Syrian Army.
A recent article in the New York Times was among many to claim that Ankara’s Esenboga Airport was now a major hub for arms supply to rebel factions -- though Turkey denies arming the rebels.
“Turkey’s Syria policy has been full of mistakes since the very beginning,” Professor Huseyin Bagci of the Middle East Technical University told AFP.
“Turkey is perceived to be a contract killer in Syria backing the radicals,” he said.
Witnesses have said they’ve seen a group of jihadist fighters staying in hotels in Turkish border towns, shuttling back and forth from Syria.
The merger of Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda, considered terrorist groups by Washington, has bolstered the Damascus claim that the rebels are extremists and raised fears in the West. Al-Nusra has been playing an effective role in the fight against Assad’s forces.
A cautious Washington is opposed to arming the rebels out of fear the weapons may turn up in the hands of extremists, though the European Union’s two heavyweights France and Britain are pushing for the lifting of an arms embargo.
Ankara is betting on the likelihood that the radical elements on the rebel side will not fit into Syrian society, and when the conflict is over, they will be “weeded out” naturally.
But meanwhile Turkey’s leaders who initially claimed that Assad’s days were numbered now avoid setting a deadline.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has admitted Turkey would face “extraordinary security risks” whether or not Assad remains in power in Syria as the two countries share a 910-kilometre (560 mile) frontier.
“Turkey is a frontline state in the Syrian crisis. Whatever happens has a direct effect on Turkey,” Professor Carlo Masala of the University of the German Armed Forces, told AFP.
Turkey makes its decisions based on its own perception of the Syrian situation, and its policy on Syria is the “result of a hard choice between bad and worse,” said Masala.
“We choose the less bad side and support them fully knowing that they might create a situation more demanding afterwards, like we see in Iraq or Libya.”
Turkey a ‘Sunni Muslim hegemon’?
Turkey’s opposition to Damascus has also left Ankara appearing to back the Sunni Muslim bloc led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and thereby straining relations with Shiite dominated Iran and Iraq, according to analysts.
The uprising in Syria has pitted majority Sunnis against the country’s rulers from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Qatar have thrown their weight behind Assad’s opponents and favor arming the rebels, while Iran and Iraq have opposed that move.
In Sunni-majority Turkey about one quarter of its 75 million population is made up of Alawites, closely related to Syria’s own minority community.
In its April report, the International Crisis Group urged Turkey to avoid creating a perception that it is acting as a “partisan, a Sunni Muslim hegemon” in its response to the Syrian crisis.
“Turkey should stop betting on a quick resolution of the Syrian crisis,” it said, calling on Ankara to support a negotiated settlement.
A veteran columnist, Semih Idiz, wrote in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News, that it was time for Ankara “to put aside their Sunni-tinted Islamist glasses and come up with new and convincing approaches (to Syria) that are impartial.”
Bagci warned Turkey should avoid bias “because it’s not a Sunni state but a democracy taking its strength from its parliamentary system.”
He said that “Turkey’s leaders need to use peaceful language in order for peace to come to the Middle East.”