BOSPORUS BLOG: Turkey & Syria friends no more

By bne IntelliNews June 27, 2012

bne -

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reasserted his enmity to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad in a speech on June 26. Labeling it a "clear and present danger," Erdogan also changed the rules of engagement for the Turkish military, and Syrian troops approaching the 565-mile border will now be considered a threat. Until recently Turkey extolled peace with its neighbours.

Just two years ago Turkey was on good terms with Syria, its neighbour to the south. Erdogan and dictator Bashar al-Assad vacationed together and professed brotherly ties. A visa-free regime was introduced and trade and commerce flourished.

However, when Assad began a brutal crackdown on a popular uprising that has left more than 15,000 people dead since March 2011, according to Syrian activists, Turkey quickly changed its stance. At least 33,000 refugees are currently being hosted by Turkish authorities in camps along the border, according to official estimates. The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) has an office in Istanbul. The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) has unofficially been allowed to organise on Turkish territory and Ankara has largely turned a blind-eye to activists and fighters smuggling humanitarian aid and weapons over the border. Earlier this month, it was reported that the Turkish National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) even aided in weapons transfers to the FSA, a charge the government firmly denies.

Some allege a proxy war in Syria has already begun. Yet it was only after Syrian forces admitted to shooting down a Turkish F-4 Phantom jet over the Mediterranean Sea on June 22, that Erdogan changed his military's rules of engagement in the border area.

"After this attack, we have entered into a new stage," the PM said. "The rules of engagement of the Turkish Armed Forces have changed. Any risk posed by Syria on the Turkish border, any military element that could pose a threat, will be ... treated as a military target."

Opportunity and risk

From Turkey's perspective, the conflict in Syria presents both opportunity and risk. If Assad falls, Turkey has the chance to install in his place a leadership sympathetic to its aims and ready to help increase its soft power in the region. By aiding in the ouster of Assad, Turkey aims to re-adjust the regional balance of power in its own favour, according to many analysts. This is why the country is supporting opposition forces. Members of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, who play an important part in funding the opposition, profess an admiration for the combination of Sunni Islam and modern politics practiced by Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan himself is rumored to have an ideological aim in supporting the Syrian opposition. Some say he aims to be a new kind of "soft-power Sultan" and he even referred to Ottoman history when describing Turkey's policy towards Syria in his parliamentary address.

The risks of prolonged instability in Syria are, of course, also numerous. The flow of refugees could eventually overwhelm Turkey's resources. The country would face a moral dilemma should the imminent threat of a large-scale massacre near its border arise. Meanwhile, there is a risk that al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups could start to operate in Syria with impunity, and that they could eventually strike at Turkey, as a Western ally. Assad is already said to be collaborating with Kurdish militants with whom Turkey has fought a 30-year war.

There are also the economic risks. Syria is also an important market and transit route for Turkey, which aims to expand its exports in the Middle East. Now, sanctions on Syria have stopped nearly all Turkish business with the country. In April, Turkey said that it had found an alternative route to export its goods to Gulf countries: a boat that takes goods from the southern port of Mersin to Alexandria in Egypt and then overland. This route costs exporters at least $1,000 more than the Syrian route, but some businessmen have hinted that the government would offer a subsidy of $1,000 per Turkish truck, according to Today's Zaman.

Recent data have added to the pressure for Turkey to help resolve the conflict quickly. In June, according to the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey, confidence in the manufacturing sector declined to 108.1 from 113.8 in May, and dropped to 103.9 in June. Tourism also registered a 1.5% year-on-year drop in May, according to official figures.

"Manufacturing confidence remained above 100, which is positive for overall growth, but it is clear that further deterioration might be on the agenda if the EU crisis deepens further and the tension between Turkey and Syria escalates," Ozgur Altug of BGC Partners said in an e-mailed note.

The lengthening list of risks stemming from the violence in Syria includes sectarian violence, instability following the fall of Assad, and the regionalization of the violence inside the country. Turkey, closer to Syria than most, believes Assad was given more than enough chances to make reforms, and Ankara has no little motivation to do what it can to end the conflict.

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