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Turkey walks a diplomatic tightrope on its Syrian border

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-06-14

While Turkey has allowed thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the government crackdown to cross the border, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been maintaining a delicate tightrope act with his southern neighbour.

As the number of Syrians fleeing across the border into Turkey mounts, newly re-elected Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been playing a delicate diplomatic balancing act with his southern neighbour.

More than 8,500 Syrian refugees are living in tent cities in Turkey following the Damascus regime’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, and in particular the military assault on the Syrian border town of Jisr-al-Shugour, which began last week.

Ankara has kept its border open and is letting the refugees across, despite Erdogan’s previous unwillingness to exert too much pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a man the Turkish premier once referred to as “a friend.”

“The Turkish government has been very carefully monitoring the situation and is trying to keep one step ahead of developments, but developments are rapidly changing,” said Suli Ozel, professor of international relations at the Istanbul Bilgi University, who added that the country was ready to take up to 80,000 refugees from Syria.

An economic giant and the only NATO member in the Muslim world, Turkey shares a 550-mile border with Syria and has increased its trade and investments with its southern neighbour in recent years.

Caught off-guard by the extent of the Syrian crackdown on protesters, Erdogan has responded by urging Assad to refrain from violence and introduce reforms. It is a dialogue he has maintained over the past few weeks, according to Turkish media reports.

On Tuesday, Erdogan rang Assad once again, urging him to "refrain from violence and end the unrest” and to “draw up a timetable of reforms as soon as possible and urgently implement them”, according to the Anatolia news agency.

But as the Syrian crackdown escalates, Ankara has been losing patience with its southern neighbour, according to Ozel.

“Turkey’s criticism of the Assad regime has been intensifying,” he told FRANCE 24. “At first, Turkey tried to reason with the regime, trying to encourage them to open up the system and accommodate the opposition. But once the violence got out of hand, the prime minister took a firm position and said the pictures that were coming out of Syria were abominations."

Although Turkey is not on the UN Security Council, Ozel believes Ankara supports the recent moves by UN Security Council members France, Britain and Germany to pass a resolution condemning the Syrian crackdown.

“We have reached a situation now where Turkey would be supportive of such a position,” he said.

Why Ankara needs Assad’s cooperation

But even as it criticised Syria, Turkey has been at the very least ambiguous in its handling of the refugee crisis.

Since the first refugees came across the border, they have been herded into camps and forbidden from meeting journalists – a move no doubt appreciated in Damascus.

According to Dorothée Schmidt, a Turkey expert at the Paris-based French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), this is a sign of Ankara’s unwillingness to break all ties with its southern neighbour.

“The Turkish authorities have a vested interest in not rubbing the Syrians the wrong way. They cannot let this turn from a humanitarian into a political crisis,” she said. “Turkey has just had its legislative elections. There is no incentive to rush headlong into a major diplomatic crisis.”

This leniency towards Syria can be explained in large part by Turkish fears of a resurgence of political agitation in the Kurdish community, which straddles the Turkey-Syria border.

Thirteen years ago the two countries almost went to war over Syria’ backing of the Kurdish People’s Party (PKK). It was the withdrawal of Syria’s support for the PKK that led to the 2002 border opening between the two countries. Ankara and Damascus have since cooperated to limit the impact of the PKK, which has been branded a “terrorist organisation” in both countries.

Turkey does not want Syria, under the guise of reprisals, to change its policy towards its Kurdish minority.

“It is clear that Syria could play the Kurdish card to pressure the Turkish government,” said Schmidt, who added that it remains in Ankara’s best interests not to rock the boat with its volatile southern neighbour.


Date created : 2011-06-14


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