As the Baathist regime of President Bashar al-Assad continues to arrest and slaughter demonstrators on the streets of Syria, Tayyip Erdoğan – Prime Minister of neighbouring Turkey, is being further drawn into the complex politics of the ‘Arab Spring’.
Already Erdoğan (an authoritarian leader, though by no means as tyrannical as the likes of al-Assad) had made cynical political moves in response to the Libyan uprising - in order to win favour from the USA and Europe, as well as to divert attention from his administration's own domestic abuses, particularly recent attacks on press freedom. Openly condemning the Gaddafi regime, even whilst opposing proposals for a no fly zone, was enough to endear the Turkish leader to key players in the international community without presenting him with any significant political risk. Responding to the crisis in Syria however, is causing him a much bigger headache.
Initially the Turkish authorities remained painfully quiet about the violent crackdown on protests across the border, a stance undoubtedly shaped at least in part by ever-expanding economic ties with their neighbour and what appears to be an strong personal relationship between Erdoğan and al-Assad. This presented a strange paradox whereby the same government that was one of the most vocal critics when Israeli forces murdered nine peace activists heading towards Gaza, became one of the most reluctant critics when Syrian troops massacred many times more civilians.
In the last few days however, Syrian state violence has forced hundreds of refugees across the Turkish border, turning foreign policy into domestic and prompting Erdoğan to formally call for an end to the crackdown. As a caveat, his administration has drawn up plans for Turkish-run refugee camps on Syrian soil; something that is distinctly unlikely to be sanctioned, but which nevertheless illustrates the seriousness with which they view the potential of a mass influx of those fleeing the violence.
The realpolitik trade-off between maintaining good relations with a valuable trading partner and avoiding the ‘burden’ of refugees, is however just one of the issues on Erdoğan’s self-serving political radar; his position is further complicated by the fact that Kurdistan spans the Turkey-Syria border. The Turkish government’s longstanding fear of the Kurds achieving autonomy or even independence from other states, thus jeopardizing Ankara’s control of Turkish-occupied regions, was reflected yesterday in Erdoğan’s warning to al-Assad against any course of action that could ‘divide Syria’.
Whilst it is highly unlikely that thoughts of easing the grip on Syrian-occupied regions had even crossed al-Assad’s mind, the potential for concessions in this area could feasibly come into play were his position to become even more unstable. Erdoğan’s sentiments suggest that in such circumstances, Turkey would fight tooth-and-nail to maintain the status quo; most likely supporting Syrian-state repression over any change in status to ‘Syrian Kurdistan’.
Overall Erdoğan’s response to the crisis in Syria, just like the one in Libya, has been inward-looking, calculated and shifting. However, in this case it could also be hugely influential if not decisive. As al-Assad is increasingly pressured by the international community he will turn to his friends, neighbours and key trading partners for support. Turkey falls into all three of these categories and genuine pressure from the government could be incredibly significant in restraining the murderous crackdown that is currently unfolding. It is time for Erdoğan to end his cynical political games, take a brave move and stand firmly beside the principles of human rights and democracy. This will do more than any politicking to endear him to democrats at home, to other states around the world and, should al-Assad fall, to the new Syria.