Turkish Public Sours on Syrian Uprising

By TIM ARANGO – New York Times – ISTANBUL  19.9.2012 –  As the war in Syria rages next door, Turks have grown increasingly weary of nearly daily reports of troubles at home: Iranian spies working with Kurdish insurgents, soldiers ambushed and killed, millions spent caring for a flood of refugees, lost trade and havoc in border villages.

“This is how we start our morning,” Mehment Krasuleymanoglu, a bookseller in a narrow alley in central Istanbul, said recently as he laid out several newspapers, each with a blaring headline about an explosion at a munitions depot that killed more than two dozen soldiers. The government called it an accident, but in the current environment, many Turks, including Mr. Krasuleymanoglu, are not so sure.

“What do we have to do with Syria?” he said. “The prime minister and his wife used to go there for tea and coffee.”

The Turkish government is facing a spasm of reproach from its own people over its policy of supporting Syria’s uprising; hosting fighters in the south, opposition figures in Istanbul and refugees on the border; and helping to ferry arms to the opposition. While many Turks at first supported the policy as a stand for democracy and change, many now believe that it is leading to instability at home, undermining Turkey’s own economy and security.

Turkey’s call for military intervention, which much of the international community opposes, has only added to the domestic frustration. Now, in the wake of the anti-American protests that have convulsed the Muslim world in reaction to a film that denigrated Islam, it seems less likely that Turkey will find partners in the West to join its call for military action in Syria. The souring mood presents the first obvious setback for the foreign policy of Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ridden the turmoil of the Arab Spring to promote Turkey’s influence abroad and his standing at home.

Suddenly, Turkey appears vulnerable on multiple fronts.

“A lot of Turks are seeing this as a direct result of Turkey’s aggressive posture against Assad,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, referring to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. In the face of criticism from columnists and opposition politicians, and signs of rising public opposition to its Syria policy, the country is being compelled to reassess its overall strategy for spreading its influence and interests across the Middle East, including Egypt, Iraq and Iran. Increasingly frustrated with its efforts to join the European Union, Turkey turned noticeably toward regaining and elevating its standing in the Muslim world, especially amid the chaos and reordering of alliances caused by the Arab Spring.

“Turkey’s Syria policy has failed,” wrote Dogan Heper, a columnist for the newspaper Milliyet. “It has turned our neighbors into enemies. We have been left alone in the world.”

Selcuk Unal, the spokesman for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, acknowledged that the Syria policy had become a domestic policy issue. Even though it may not be popular, he said, “that doesn’t mean it is wrong.”

“I don’t think we are wrong so far,” Mr. Unal said. “Turkey is on the right side of history on this.”

Before the Arab uprisings, economic and political engagement with Syria was a centerpiece of Turkey’s regional strategy, which some described as an effort to integrate the Middle East along the lines of the European Union. Visa restrictions were lifted and trade increased. Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Assad even vacationed together. Initially, Turkey urged dialogue and reform in Syria, but as the killing increased, Turkey turned against the government.

That shift was part of its broader regional strategy. Last year Prime Minister Erdogan toured Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, offering Turkey’s support for the democratic aspirations of the Arab world’s revolutionaries, and holding up Turkey’s mix of Islam, democracy and economic prosperity as an inspiration for those countries in turmoil.

Turkey, it seemed, was ascendant, and the public was largely supportive.

“We loved it,” said Soli Ozel, an academic and columnist. “It was like, we’re back. The empire is back.” Perhaps causing the greatest unease for Turks these days is an increase in violence by Turkey’s separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K., which seems emboldened by the success of Syria’s Kurds in gaining territory. The P.K.K. has waged an insurgency against Turkey since the 1980s in a conflict that has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives.

More than 700 people have died in the past 14 months, the deadliest level in 13 years, according to a report published last week by the International Crisis Group. The P.K.K. has now set up daylight checkpoints in villages in the southeast, carried out deadly ambushes against Turkish forces and kidnapped lawmakers. Recently, the Turkish military carried out an offensive involving F-16 fighter jets and 2,000 soldiers, Reuters reported. The Assad government has effectively ceded some territory near the Turkish border to Syria’s Kurds, who have not joined the opposition in large numbers. These gains have fanned the flames of Kurds’ historical ambitions for an independent state that would include Kurdish areas in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran, analysts say.

“There has been a thunderbolt in the minds of people there,” said Sezgin Tanrikulu, a Kurdish member of Turkey’s Parliament, referring to Kurdish areas in southeast Turkey. P.K.K. fighters have become more visible, he said. “They are trying to create the idea among Kurds there that the authority in the area is the P.K.K.”

An influx of refugees — more than 100,000 Syrians have sought safety in Turkey — has tested government resources and raised tensions in border areas, prompting the Turkish government to try to relocate refugees further inland. The government has said it has spent $300 million providing for refugees and has complained of a lack of support from the international community.

According to Mr. Cagaptay of the Turkish Research Program, Turkey remains “the only country that is economically and politically stable in the region.” Turkey’s ambitious Middle East policy has been centered on Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s much-heralded vision of “no problems” with neighbors. But that approach has stalled amid the hard realities of the region and the limits of Turkish power, most evident in its policy in Syria, where nearly 23,000 people have been killed and the Assad government clings to power. Now the joke is that there are “no neighbors without problems.”

Last year Mr. Davutoglu spoke expansively about a political, economic and military alliance with Egypt that could serve as a linchpin of a new regional order. Almost nothing has come of that, although a spokesman for Mr. Davutoglu said Turkey would soon begin a high-level dialogue with the government of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s new president, who was a member of the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, the talk is more about a rivalry between Egypt and Turkey over which will become the region’s power broker.“Egypt will try to restore its central role in Arab affairs, and it will be interesting to see Morsi and Erdogan compete for influence in the region,” Mr. Cagaptay said.

Mr. Ozel, the columnist, was more emphatic. “The fact of the matter is that when all is said and done, Turks are Turks and Arabs are Arabs,” he said. “Egypt believes it is the crown jewel of the Arab world, and it will not share the spotlight with anyone, including Turks.”

Analysts say Turkey has hardened sectarian divisions in the region by working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in backing Syria’s Sunni rebels against Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and by supporting Sunnis in Iraq against the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite. And tensions with Iran, the region’s largest Shiite power, have been heightened since Turkey agreed to allow NATO to place a radar station on its territory as part of a missile defense system. To its credit, analysts say, Turkey will quickly shift from policies it deems mistaken. For example, it opposed NATO intervention in Libya and then swiftly changed tack. But it may be too late to change course on Syria. “They are stuck in this conflict so deeply, there is no way out,” said Mr. Tanrikulu, the Kurdish lawmaker.