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This time it’s getting serious. The wave of Arab revolutions has reached Syria. Is next-door Turkey on its own road to Damascus just like Apostle Paul (who was a native of Tarsus, in today’s Turkish province of Mersin)? For Ankara, Syria is no ordinary country. It is the foremost example of the zero-problems policy at work. The two neighbours were on the verge of a military conflict back in October 1998 over the presence of the PKK and its leader Abdullah Öcalan on Syrian soil (Israel played the peacebroker!). These days they are best of friends. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Bashar al-Assad are close, the two cabinets have joint sessions, trade is booming, tourists and traders roam across the 800km-long border benefiting from a visa-free regime (Turkish academics quip about “Sham-land” replacing Schengenland). I was in Gaziantep in early March and paid the obligatory visit to Sanko Park, a shopping mall that enjoys a cult status with visitors from nearby Aleppo and further afield. Turks speak of a “family relationship” but everyone knows how painful family dramas can end up being.
The anti-regime protests in Deraa, which have been going on since 18th March, and the heavy-handed response to them by Syrian security forces, pose a challenge to Turkey’s “softly-softly” approach to Arab neighbours. What Ankara wants to see is a gradual relaxation of Ba’ath’s grip on power and ultimately a transition towards more pluralist politics. But stability remains a paramount concern. If violence spills over to the northern areas populated by Kurds, Turkey might well face a refugee problem, not unlike the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991. And let us not forget that the Kurdish issue, the centrepiece of Turkey’s Middle Eastern policy, is far from off the table. The return of the PKK to Syria is not a pleasant prospect. A civil war between the Alawi-dominated army and Sunni insurgents is equally threatening, as is the emergence of a radical regime which could be easily tempted to exploit historical grievances against Turkey. A shift in Syria is bound to have enormous regional fallout and affect Turkish policy towards Lebanon, Iran and Iraq.
And yet, as in Libya, Turkey cannot afford to be fully on the side of a repressive regime that has presided over a state of emergency since 1963 and which had few qualms in destroying 20,000 of its citizens in Hama back in 1982. For what is worth, one often hears Turkish policymakers arguing that the country’s democracy and vibrant market economy is a source of inspiration, or even a model, for Arab (and Persian) publics and is pushing them to ask the same things from their own governments.
That’s why the developments in Deraa, Latakia and elsewhere are the real test for Turkey’s policy, much more than what has happened in Tunisia, Egypt or even Libya. It is easy to understand why Hakan Fidan,head of Turkish National intelligence Organisation (MİT) visited Syria on Sunday, while Erdoğan was on the phone with Assad the following day. What we heard from Ankara are assurances that Syria will lift the state of emergency and embark on political reform. Let’s hope that the AKP apostles of democracy have the skill and savvy to convert their friends in Damascus.
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