Turkey's voluble prime minister has talked himself into a corner on Syria. Will the spiraling unrest next door finally force him to back up his words?
ISTANBUL — On Sept. 4 in Ankara, in a meeting with members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan loudly threw down a gauntlet for next-door neighbor President Bashar al-Assad.
"The massacres in Syria that gain strength from the international community’s indifference are continuing to increase," he said. "The regime in Syria has now become a terrorist state. We do not have the luxury to be indifferent to what is happening there."
It was the culmination of increasingly strong rhetoric from a highly conservative yet completely overextended leader who seems to want both political stability in Syria — and the central hero’s role in bringing down the Assad regime.
Erdogan complains that he has received little support from Turkey’s allies. On Sept. 5, he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the United States "lacked initiative" in dealing with the crisis in Syria. "There are certain things being expected from the United States. The United States had not yet catered to those expectations," he said. "Maybe it’s because of the pre-election situation."
The latest rhetoric has sent nervous waves down the Bosphorus, where Erdogan has faced growing criticism from liberal political elites.
"There’s no push within the country for him to go into Syria," says Soli Ozel, a political commentator and professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.
Erdogan once touted a "no problems with neighbors" foreign policy that emphasized removing longstanding points of tension with surrounding countries, including Syria. But with the advent of the Arab Spring, he strongly supported revolutionaries working to topple the established order.
Today, the Turkish premier is aiming to be "a central diplomatic figure with good ties to both the West and the Middle East, who can eliminate problems on his borders," according to Jon Alterman, Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And certainly there are ways that Syria could work out that would allow him to emerge as the victor in all of this … But there’s also certain ways it could work out that creates a lot of messiness for him."
Since the Syrian crisis erupted last March, Erdogan has, more than any other leader, walked a tightrope between intervention and isolationism. In late June, after Syrian forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet, he swore that any Syrian military unit approaching the border "will be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target." However, he also said Syrian helicopters had infiltrated Turkish airspace five times, without any retaliation.
It’s no easy task: Erdogan must balance a desire to take a leadership role in Syria while simultaneously appeasing disgruntled voters with no desire to get involved in an escalating quagmire. He must also manage the influx of more than 80,000 Syrian refugees who continue to stream across the border into the Turkish province of Hatay, straining a region where schools and hospitals are overcrowded and Arabic is now as common on public buses as Turkish.
"People in Turkey don’t want a rushed intervention in Syria. Most Turks are worried about getting mired," says Salman Shaikh, director at the Brookings Institution’s office in Doha. He added, however, that Assad might beat them to intervention — exporting security threats into Turkey to retaliate for Ankara’s support to Syrian opposition fighters.
Even as Erdogan works to enhance Turkey’s influence in the Arab world, he is also taking aggressive steps to transform its domestic politics. He has pushed Turkey, which is 99 percent Muslim, in a more socially conservative direction, sparking controversy in May by calling for restrictions on abortion, equating it with murder. For years, he has faced liberal criticism over his endorsement of headscarves, worn by his wife and daughters.
In Istanbul’s trendier cafes, it has become a source of amusement. Socially liberal Turks joke that the volume of the daily call to prayer has been turned up to unconscionable levels in a misguided attempt to get non-observant Muslims to pay attention.
Combined with his support for a predominantly Sunni uprising in Syria, the effect has been to cast Erdogan as a figure bent on imposing his religious views across not only his own country, but the entire Middle East.
All in all, the prime minister and his party "have been singularly failing in convincing the country that the policies they’re pursuing are correct," Ozel says. "And that includes the people who actually constitute his base."
But it might not be Erdogan’s obvious desire to topple the Assad regime that finally spurs Turkish involvement in Syria. Experts say it’s likely that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish liberation movement that is listed as an official terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union, is working with Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
"In the north, [the Assad regime] has allotted five provinces to the Kurds, to the terrorist organization," Erdogan told a Turkish television station in July. Would he attack fleeing rebels if they attacked the Turkish side? "That’s not even a matter of discussion, it is a given," he replied.
"Looking at foreign intervention in Syria, the whole Kurdish issue might be the entree point, especially for Turkey," says Shaikh.
For centuries, Kurds have been pariahs in highly nationalist Turkey. The possibility of the PKK reestablishing its ties with the Assad regime, which had been severed in the late 1990s, and continuing its decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state from northern Syria is seen as a grave threat by Turkish leaders.
Erdogan "still doesn’t have the backing and support for an intervention," Shaikh says. "But this issue rubs up against vital national security interest."
As the Turkish premier ponders his next move, fighting between the PKK and Turkish army has also spiked. On Sept. 6, Reuters reported that more than 2,000 Turkish soldiers, accompanied by fighter jets and helicopters, attacked PKK positions in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. On Sept. 2, 20 PKK militants and 10 soldiers were killed in a coordinated PKK attack in southeast Sirnak province.
In Ankara, officials have decried the rise in violence as a mirror of the escalating conflict next door. In July, Erdogan accused the regime of allowing PKK militants to cross the border and operate alongside the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliated group, in embattled northern Syria.
"There’s more tension developing here, which points to there being a PKK offshoot, the PYD, which is trying to dominate everything the Kurds are doing inside Syria," Alterman says.
Of the estimated 2 million Kurds in Syria, Alterman says, most "want to be a part of the opposition and the revolution and the Syria of the future. But this is becoming difficult after the efforts of the PKK offshoot to dominate the regime."
The Syrian president has been known to stir trouble with the Kurds as a way of getting Turkey’s attention. Assad has a long history of using the Kurdish question — arguably the most convoluted, long-running of Turkey’s foreign policy issues — to bait Erdogan.
Assad’s strategy "to provoke problems and get paid off for no longer provoking problems," Alterman says. "What we’ve seen in the last year is more PKK activity [allowed in Syria] intended to punish Turkey. The Kurdish issue is a friction point in all of this, a tool that people use to get back at each other."
Assad has worked to create friction between Arabs and Kurds by distributing weapons to Arabs, Alterman notes, and telling them the Kurds are going to try and dominate them. Alterman warns that an Arab-Kurd conflagration in Syria "might not be far away."
As these issues come to a head, Erdogan will be faced with a tough decision: Intervene and risk the wrath of his electorate, or stand by and watch as Syria explodes in his face. In the meantime, Erdogan’s tightrope will grow thinner and wobblier.