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Turkey's Syria Conundrum

By Firdevs Robinson.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu must be secretly dreaming of a world where past statements would vanish into thin air.

He had told Parliament in April that 'a new Middle East was emerging and Turkey would continue to be the master, the leader and the servant of this new Middle East' .

Barely four months later, on August the 20th with the number of Syrian refugees on its soil approaching one hundred thousand people, Mr Davutoglu declared that Syria is no longer a national or regional problem. He said 'It now poses a security risk to neighboring countries and the United Nations should intervene in accordance with its mission' .

Turkey wants the United Nations to set up refugee camps "within the borders of Syria" in order to contain the number of Syrians fleeing to Turkey. It urges the international community to respond collectively to the killing of the civilian population. Turkey feels the world needs to stand by it when the threat to use chemical and biological weapons against Turkey exists.

Turkey has responded to a massive humanitarian crisis at its doorstep in a manner befitting a serious country with a long history.

The AKP government's decision to finally distance itself from, and then take a firm stand against the Assad dictatorship, can only be applauded.

However, it still leaves many unanswered questions.

Even though the speed and extent of Syria's spiraling violence has taken most of the world by surprise, shouldn't Turkey, claiming to be "the master, the leader and the servant " of this region , have been reading and predicting the situation better than most?

The unintended consequences of the conflict in Syria and Turkey's involvement in it are becoming clearer each day. Lack of contingency planning, failure of foresight and an inability to develop a comprehensive policy that includes courageous steps to deal with its own ethnic question and democratic deficit undermine Turkey's standing in its region.

As the violence escalates and the stakes become higher, Turkey can no longer afford to continue with a foreign policy that is characterized by an "act now, think later" approach.

The Arab Uprising put a spring in the step of Ahmet Davutoglu, the architect of Turkey's recent foreign policy. Mr. Davutoglu had talked of 'a new zone of peace, stability and prosperity emerging around Turkey.' In the Turkish Grand National Assembly session where the foreign minister made his statement, the opposition Republican Peoples' Party (CHP) called the government's policy towards Syria a "fiasco and adventurism".

However, having failed to formulate a credible alternative which adequately condemned the brutality of the Assad regime, the Republican Peoples' Party's warnings went largely unnoticed. The fact is, neither the government nor its fiercest critics had really predicted that unfolding events in Syria would turn into an existential threat for Turkey.

The crisis in Syria tested the limits of Turkey's influence in the region. It also exposed Turkey's own ethnic and sectarian divisions.

Alarmed at the power vacuum being filled with an increasingly bold Kurdish presence over the border, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned against Kurdish insurgents establishing camps in northern Syria, saying Turkey would not tolerate it. But it was inside national borders that Kurdish armed group PKK intensified its attacks on the police, military and civilians, carrying the decades old bloody conflict to a new and more dangerous stage.

In late July, PKK militants engaged Turkish armed forces for nearly three weeks in the southeastern region of Semdinli, bordering Iran and Iraq. Over the past month, the PKK attacked and killed two soldiers in the Aegean seaside town of Foca. On August 12th, an outspoken Kurdish/Alevi deputy from the opposition CHP was kidnapped and held for 48 hours by the PKK. On 20th August, the second day of the major Muslim holiday Eid el Fitr, a car bomb exploded near a police station in Gaziantep, a city near Turkey's south-eastern border with Syria, killing at least nine people including four children and wounding dozens more. The government immediately blamed it on the PKK. The PKK denied involvement.

One of the most dangerous consequences of Turkey's decision to become an organising hub for the Syrian uprising has been the infiltration of its border regions by foreign fighters. The British press has been reporting examples of UK citizens travelling to Turkey to join extremists groups fighting for Syrian opposition groups and concerns have been raised by at least one UK politician over young British Muslims being radicalised by the conflict in Syria via Turkey.

The visible presence of home-grown Islamists and foreign jihadists caused alarm among populations in towns and villages along Turkey's border with Syria. In areas where Turkey's own Alevi (and in smaller numbers, Arabic speaking Alawite) community lives, security concerns and tension among local people are growing. Turkey's covert and overt support for the mostly Sunni Syrian rebels fighting the Alawite regime in Syria and its facilitation of Saudi Arabian and Qatari arming and funding of rebels have unsettled many.

Yet increasingly angry complaints raised by the local population about the sectarian and fundamentalist elements arriving in the area have failed to move Turkey's decision makers. Despite widespread observations that adjoining provinces have become a logistics base for weapons and radical Islamist activity, the only official concern seems to be the threat posed by the Kurdish militancy.

There is no doubt increased indiscriminate violence by the PKK and possible knock-on effects of the rising political aspirations of Syria's minority Kurds on Turkey's own Kurds merit serious attention. However, it is difficult to understand the tendency to turn a blind eye, or even to deny the presence of a growing extremism in Turkey and beyond.

Turkish columnist Semih Idiz's recent article titled 'Amazing but True' went even further to suggest that it may be intentional. He highlighted the fact that one of the three Al-Qaeda militants killed recently in Aleppo was Baki Yigit, a known Al-Qaeda operative. Baki Yigit was arrested soon after the 2003 Al-Qaeda bombings targeting synagogues, the HSBC bank and the British Consulate in Istanbul, killing 57 people. Yigit was found guilty in 2007 and sentenced to life imprisonment. An appeal court ruling released him in 2010. Mr Idiz asked: "How is it possible that someone like Baki Yigit could freely travel to Syria and join the fight alongside Free Syrian Army?" His answer was chilling: "For a moment, I forgot this was the country where journalists, academics and retired generals rot in jails while convicted murderers walk free".

Even the obvious change of policy among western governments reacting to reports of recent brutality by some of the Syrian opposition didn't seem to trigger alarm bells among Turkey's leaders.

When the US secretary of state Hilary Clinton visited Istanbul to discuss the Syrian conflict, she made it clear that their concerns were not limited to the PKK threat. "Yes, we worry about terrorists, PKK, al Qaeda and others taking advantage of the legitimate fight of the Syrian people for their freedom, to use Syria to promote their own agendas, and even to perhaps find footholds to launch attacks against others," Clinton said. Very little of the US emphasis on the need to vet rebel factions, in order to ensure weapons did not fall into al Qaeda hands, were mentioned in the Turkish media. Instead, Clinton's visit was another opportunity to underline common perspectives on the fight against the PKK.

Britain, too, recently announced its own "non lethal" support for Syria's opposition, with the acknowledgement of difficulties that went with it. Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed that they were in contact with the "political arm" of the Free Syrian Army, and no military advice or weaponry would be provided. William Hague said that arming the opposition would have risks attached to it, regarding how that equipment would be used because "there have been reports of atrocities on the opposition side".

On the same day, responding to the Foreign Secretary's announcement, the Amnesty International UK Syria Campaign welcomed practical measures which aim to protect all of Syria's civilians. However, it urged the UK Government and its partners 'to help develop the awareness and mechanisms to ensure the armed opposition leadership make clear to their forces that war crimes and human rights abuses will never be tolerated.' Amnesty said: "The UK needs to be crystal clear with the commanders of Syria's armed opposition that they have a duty to prevent war crimes by those under their command. The UK should also emphasise to them that they may be held criminally responsible if they fail to do so."

In fact, Turkish authorities didn't need prompting from the outside in order to have better understanding of the wider security issues facing Turkey. Among others, Mehmet Seker, the Gaziantep deputy from the opposition Republican Peoples' Party CHP, warned the government in February about security lapses in refugee camps and loss of control at Turkey's borders with Syria. Mr Seker spoke again soon after the latest bomb attack in Gaziantep. 'There is no security at the border. Just as people come and go backwards and forwards, arms and ammunition move across, too. Nobody knows who these people are. We are about to lose the control of our border crossings. We have already lost the control of the camps. There are three thousand Syrian families, living in rented accommodation in Gaziantep. We don't know who they are, why they are here. In our area, it is not just the Syrian intelligence Al-Mukhabarat that operates. Every other intelligence agency is freely moving around. This is a serious security risk for our province and for whole of Turkey' he said.

The US and the UK have been sending their envoys to Turkey to meet the Syrian opposition, in order to stress the importance of human rights and respect for minorities. On the day Foreign Minister Davutoglu called on the international community to stand by the Syrian people's rights and ambitions, the European Union urged Turkey to protect freedom of speech of its politicians while fighting against terrorism. The very same day, Turkey's Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin threatened journalists who made mildly critical comments about him "to stuff their writings in their mouths".

That's the irony of Turkey - a country that glorifies and finds its long lost mission in an Arab Spring, but feels petrified about the prospect of a Kurdish blossoming…