Critics who have been bashing Turkey for fraternizing with Syria for almost a decade now should realize just how valuable that engagement has become at a time when the regime in Syria is trying to figure out how to cope with growing unrest amid demands for reform.
Turkey has for some time been advising Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to act quickly in adopting reforms and implement them without delay in order to satisfy people’s demands while also cautioning the regime to not use brute force or violence in an attempt to stem a wave of demonstrations. I also know that these public calls to Syria are being complemented by blunt, privately relayed messages to the leadership of Syria at the highest political level.
Turkish leaders even registered their deep frustration with Bashar for initially not lifting a decades-long emergency rule in his much-anticipated first public message. The Syrian president later reversed his position and ended the emergency rule. “We don’t want an authoritarian, totalitarian regime in Syria. We hope the process of democratization is being rapidly pursued,” Erdoğan said last Wednesday, following a phone conversation with al-Assad. The message was clear: Time is quickly running out, and Bashar should get his act together if he wants to hold the country together.
Turkish engagement with Syria on economic cooperation and enhanced political dialogue, shored up by a close personal relationship that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has developed with Bashar, has proven to be a valuable asset. Turkey has extended all the help it can to Bashar to reform the country and even sent a delegation last week to provide advice on how to proceed with a number of initiatives to overhaul the country’s institutions. The high-level delegation included representatives from the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and the State Planning Organization (DPT).
If it explodes, Syria, unlike Libya, will carry huge risks not only for Turkey but for the entire region. Any failure in making a transition in Syria as peaceful as possible will open a Pandora’s box for everybody. A possible civil war could send millions to the 800-kilometer-long Turkish border, creating a huge humanitarian crisis. If you consider the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of Turks who have family on the other side of the border in Syria, the pressure on the Turkish government to act would be immense, especially this close to the upcoming national elections on June 12.
A failed state in Syria would potentially complicate matters for Turkey with respect to a Kurdish problem that it has been trying to address in recent years. Current estimates place the number of Kurds in Syria at 2 million, out of a total population of 17 million. Kurds constitute the largest ethnic minority in the country. Turkey has been working with Syria to solve the problems of approximately 400,000 Kurds who have been living in this country as stateless people since 1962.
The terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has also been targeting these stateless people to recruit fighters for its cause against the Turkish government. According to an earlier plan, Syria would have declared a general amnesty for PKK militants living in northern Iraq, allowing them to return to Syria with citizenship rights. This would deal a blow to the PKK fighting force in Iraq. Secondly, Syria would grant citizenship to stateless Kurds in Syria and allow some of them to return to Turkey, where they originally lived. It would be difficult to pursue these goals with an unstable Syria.
There is also a looming crisis on the horizon between Shiites and Sunnis if the civil unrest turns into bloodshed in Syria. This is an apocalyptic scenario that could pull both Iran and Saudi Arabia into the conflict and inflame the entire region. We learned a bitter lesson in Iraq about how devastating sectarian conflict would be on a national scale. Nobody wants to imagine what would happen if sectarian conflict were to escalate into a region wide war. Hence, it is in the interest of everybody in the region to use considerable restraint and demonstrate common sense in their approach to the Syrian dilemma.
Given the circumstances, I think Turkey is doing everything it can at the moment and hoping that the transition in Syria will be without much bloodshed. The possibility of external interference, no matter how well it is justified, would exacerbate an already tense situation in the country. The change must come from within to sustain the momentum of reform and to create a sense of ownership.