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Turkey Tough-Loving Syria? – OpEd

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By Arash Zahedi

In one of its latest moves against the Syrian government and in the name of “democracy” for the Syrian people, Turkey has agreed to the Syrian opposition opening offices in Istanbul.

Adding fuel to the flame that is burning the relations of the two states is the recent remarks of Turkish officials about Syria’s leadership. They have said everything, from issuing warnings to cut the export of electricity to Syria to such remarks as Bashar al-Assad having to pay dearly for — as the Turks say — his “oppressing policies” and to even likening Assad’s fate to that of Libya’s ex-ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

Turkey has truly been successful in highlighting its role as an influential, regional and international player in the recent world developments. Numerous are the instances of Ankara’s involvement in regional and extra-regional issues, in which it has tried to develop ties especially with its neighbors, bring conflicts to an end (such as the ones in Afghanistan and Pakistan) or defuse decades-long tensions (like the ones Ankara had with Armenia, Greece and even Syria).

However, the role Turkey has taken in the face of the very current Arab uprisings has left many wondering whether it was in line with its previous stances or it had a complete change of heart.

To be perfectly honest, the question is why would Turkey jeopardize its regionally supported role through which it has gained a lot? Wasn’t it this role, especially through Damascus’s cooperation, that won Ankara an upper hand against their constant threat, Kurdistan’s Workers Party or the PKK? And perhaps most importantly these days, what business is Turkey following in the Arab League?

It might be argued that countries should act in line with their national interests. But what in Syria is up for grabs for Turkey, at least at this point, is not very clear. True, Assad’s government does have dissidents. But it has supporters, too. Harboring a neighbor’s opposition, considering buffer zones for their activities, like the not very successful attempt in Jisr al-Shugur, and trying to topple a government there, will make the chain of events extremely hard and costly — if not impossible — for Ankara and is definitely not in line with Turkey’s national interests, though it might be for some.

Ankara has recently been trying to portray itself as an advocate of democracy, showing support for democracy-seeking movements in the region. And by region, one thinks of many countries. We have seen more or less the same events in Bahrain, Yemen and even Saudi Arabia after, of course, the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes.

However, surprisingly, it was to some extent in Libya and to a great extent in Syria today that Ankara is identifying with the popular uprising. And why it does not and has not let out the same cries for Bahrainis and Yemenis brings to mind the idea that perhaps things other than merely supporting popular movements exist within the foreign policy doctrine of Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister and Head of the country’s ruling and Islam-inspired Justice and Development Party (AKP) Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Libya and Egypt in September. In his Cairo visit, Erdogan spoke of the need of secularism in drawing up the new Egyptian constitution. In addition to upsetting Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, considered the largest and the best-organized political force in the country, his remarks stunned many in Turkey as well.

Ankara has more recently used the same rhetoric for other Arab nations. In the case of Syria, it is supporting people like Burhan Ghalioun, known for their laicism.

Ironically, AKP owes its rule to the votes of its Islam-loving citizens who chose it after they had enough of the left and right parties. The party knows very well that the same people are its invaluable assets.

Even more ironic is the fact that some of the political prisoners in Turkey, a number of them journalists, are supporters of secularism who criticize AKP’s version of democracy and the fact that the party is religion-oriented. Such people, it seems, have to be released as far as the country supports laicism and democracy.

The fact of the matter is that such issues do not come from Turkey as argued. They originate from elsewhere. From parties who have long opposed the rule of religion in the state, who have experienced the intensity of religious opposition and resistance and who now fear Islam becoming the backbone of the new emerging political systems in the region, after being well indicated in the recent voting in Tunisia, thus threatening their very existence in the region.

It has occurred to many now that perhaps Turkey is playing the wrong hand in this regional game. A hand, already given to other regional players such as Saudi Arabia that wins only for the West and will eventually disorient Turkey.

It is such a pity that a country that has come a long way to reach its current, indeed paramount standing in the region and without a doubt in the world, and that, unlike many others, has learnt to look both to the East and West and not only the West, falls for this secondhand role it is asked to play.

It will truly leave a lot to be desired, if Ankara maintains its most recent stances which, at the end of the day, might spell the end for a Turkish foreign policy which prioritizes zero tension with its neighbors while safeguarding its national interests.

— Arash Zahedi is a Tehran-based political analyst and broadcaster.

Press TV

Press TV is a 24-hour English language global news network owned by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Its headquarters are located in Tehran, Iran. Press TV carries news analysis, documentary talk shows and sports news worldwide with special focus on West Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

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