BOSPORUS BLOG: Turkey's tough role in a rough neighbourhood

By bne IntelliNews March 30, 2012

Justin Vela in Istanbul -

Turkey is facing increasing fallout from the situation in Syria, with tension mounting in the south of the country and Kurdish rebels threatening to join their cause with that of Bashar al-Assad. As it's slowly pulled further into the conflict, Ankara is now finding out the cost of its ambition to become a regional leader in such a tough neighbourhood.

One Turkish official, speaking on a condition of anonymity, told journalists on March 26 that Turkey is surveying all options for dealing with the crisis in Syria, which has dragged on for over a year and left at least 8,000 people dead, according the United Nations estimates.

Approximately 17,000 Syrian refugees are in southern Turkey, according to official figures, and thousands more are expected to arrive in the coming weeks. Turkish officials say that the country is considering using troops to establish a buffer zone inside Syria if the number of refugees overwhelms the capacity of refugee camps on the Turkish side of the border.

The arrival of a massive number of fleeing refugees also threatens to upset the stability of southern Turkey, and the government is evaluating all its options to best handle such a crisis. The official said Turkey would prefer to establish such a buffer zone only with an international mandate, but might be forced to act alone.

The official also admitted that the odds of a negotiated settlement with the regime of Bashar al-Assad are slim, noting that every time the regime agrees to negotiate, the violence actually increases. "The Syrian administration has made similar moves in the past," he says.

It was only a year ago that Turkey's foreign policy was dominated by the soft power approach advocated by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. His stance of "zero problems" with Turkey's neighbors is now an idea relegated to a time that could not last in this rough neighborhood. Davutoglu, once the oft-quoted hero of the new Turkey, has largely left the spotlight, and according to some has lost a lot of support in Ankara. Instead, Turkey is now at the forefront of international efforts to unseat former ally Assad.

The country has also ended its attempts to negotiate with Kurdish militants, instigating instead an aggressive new policy that appears aimed at wiping out the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and its supporters. Special police units, beholden to the prime minister, charged with rapidly striking at the rebels when they enter Turkey from northern Iraq are being created. Anyone that is considered to provide any support for the rebels, either material or via "propaganda," can be arrested and held for long periods without trial. This angers the Kurds, who remember similar policies from the bloody 1990s.

Worryingly, the PKK and Assad regime appear to have joined forces against Turkey. PKK field commander Murat Karayilan announced last week that the Turkey's Kurdish areas would be transformed into a full-scale war zone should Ankara intervene in Syria, apparently in response to the talk of a buffer zone. "The PKK has chosen a side," the Turkish foreign ministry official says, warning that any cooperation between the Assad regime and the PKK targeting Turkey would be a mistake.

With the influx of further refugees, the PKK renewing its attacks, and atrocities being carried out across its borders, Turkey is in a precarious position. Unless there is concrete action from the international community it appears only a matter of time before the country is hit in a way that it will be forced to respond, increasing its campaign against the PKK, or putting troops in Syria. Both could happen.

The Turkish government might like to think that the Arab Spring was an opportunity for the country to increase its regional leadership. But with problems abounding at its borders, Turkey could be about to feel the true cost of that leadership.

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