By Alina Lehtinen
Civil unrest has been going on for two weeks in Syria. Last week, the protests spread from Daraa, a town in southwestern Syria, across the country.
Keeping in close contact with the Syrian regime, the Turkish government is awaiting what might become its most difficult foreign policy challenge yet. Syria is an increasingly important economic partner, with bilateral trade having risen sevenfold over the past eight years. But Ankara risks political fallout if it does not lend support to calls for change.
“Turkey has been building up its image in the Arab world intensively over the past few years and cannot risk being classified as supporter of dictatorship,” said Mustafa El-Labbad, director of the Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo. Still, he added, “Turkey is not going to pressure Syria too much like others are doing, because of Turkish national interests.”
Instead, he said, Ankara will “try to take the middle way” between supporting the current government in Syria and pressing for democracy and human rights.
Other experts sound similar concerns. “Turkey has created a good relationship with the current Syrian regime. It is very difficult to say what kind of impact a change in regime in Damascus might have on Turkey,” Bilkent University’s Tarik Oguzlu told SETimes.
In addition to trade, the two countries have an issue in common: the restive Kurdish minority.
“The Kurdish issue is a common security threat for both regimes. Thus Turkey wants stability in Syria and promotes orderly change,” Istanbul University’s Erhan Kelesoglu said.
Turkey’s “zero problems” approach to foreign policy has already been tested by the Libya crisis. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government initially appeared reluctant to close the door on Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, but later agreed to join an international intervention that targeted his military forces.
Regarding Syria, Erdogan said last week that he has warned President Bashar al-Assad that the winds of change are everywhere and that Syria could be next in line to face a rise of peoples’ movement.
But if the unrest in Syria evolves into civil war, Turkish policymakers might have to take a stronger stand on the issue, experts say.
“Turkey is trying to walk a fine line. It is a very difficult question for Turkish decision makers to answer,” said Oguzlu.