Mehmet Ali writes from Ankara: More Turkish shelling of Syrian positions and more Syrian shelling of Turkish positions. Is this the prelude to war? How did Ankara get itself into a situation that appears to have no solution?
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has got himself into a fix. A few years ago he was all charm and bonhomie. He set out to remove all the diplomatic barriers in the Middle East. He exchanged visits with President Bashar Al Assad of Syria. Attempts were made to solve the age old problem of Armenia. Turkey appeared to be putting on the mantle of the Ottoman Empire – only this time promoting peace. But now everything has been turned upside down.
What changed things? The Arab Spring, in case you’re struggling to find an answer. Mr Erdogan decided he wanted to be on the side of the protesters. When trouble started in Syria, he immediately sided with the rebels. Not only did he do that but he allowed the Free Syrian Army to organise and use his country as a base from which to attack Syria. He also provided free passage to jihadists bent on bringing down the Al Assad regime. He presumably calculated that the rebels would win because they would have international support. This turned out to be false. The Arab League got cold feet and the United States, after its chastening experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, was in no mood to intervene and begin nation building. It is also election year in America. So Turkey found itself alone. Even worse the rebels are losing.
So the Turkish parliament passed legislation which permits its troops to be sent into foreign countries. The AKP says this was merely a renewal of the law which was enacted to deal with the fact that the Kurdish insurgents (PKK or Kurdish Workers’ Party) had bases in northern Iraq. The Turkish opposition see the law as leading to a war with Syria.
The vast majority of Turks do not want war with Syria. The shelling of Syrian positions near the Turkish border has one aim – in the eyes of some observers – of establishing a buffer zone. Syrian military positions there will be shelled until they abandon the territory.
Then there is the question of refugees. There are over a hundred thousand already in Turkey and the UN expects that to rise to several times that number. There must be a limit to the number of refugees Turkey can accommodate without a public backlash.
So how does one explain the predicament Turkey finds itself now in? Prime Minister Erdogan – he intends to become President in 2014 – has got too big for his boots. He was the only AKP speaker at the recent AKP Congress. The three major foreign guests were the leader of the Iraqi Kurds, the President of Egypt and the leader of Hamas in Lebanon.
Another problem for Erdogan is that the PKK now have bases in northern Syria. It has launched attacks against the Turkish military from there on a regular basis. Will the decision be taken to enter Syria to take out these bases?
Critics of Erdogan’s over ambitious policies warn that Turkey can sleepwalk into war with Syria. This would be its own Vietnam. The conflict might be endless. What would represent success and how would Turkey withdraw?
Time to draw in your horns, Mr Erdogan.