Syria’s Violent Crackdown on Protesters Deepens Rift With Turkey

By Patrick Goodenough | June 20, 2011 | 5:24 AM EDT

A Syrian girl is seen in a newly opened refugee camp in Yayladagi, Turkey on Sunday, June 19, 2011. Turkish authorities say more than 10,000 refugees were being sheltered in four camps as of Sunday morning. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

( – Syrian President Bashar Assad’s violent crackdown on anti-government rebels is threatening to unravel several years of historic rapprochement between his regime and neighboring Turkey, a development likely to be welcomed in the West.

Turkey’s foreign policy under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, has sparked debate over whether NATO’s only Muslim member is drifting “eastward.”

The Turkish government has denied it, characterizing its policy as one of seeking “zero problems with neighbors” in the Middle East. Still, Turkey’s deepening economic and political ties with both Syria and Iran have troubled Western governments, and the U.S. was especially disturbed when Turkey – then a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council – voted against a key Iran sanctions resolution a year ago.

The crisis in Syria has prompted 10,000 Syrians to spill across the Turkish border in search of refuge, and thousands more reportedly are trying to flee. Syrian troops at the weekend tightened their control of the border in a bid to prevent further departures, with human rights groups reporting arrests, roadblocks and the deployment of tanks in the small border town of Bdama.

With the refugees have come tales of severe abuses by Syrian forces, fueling outrage in Turkey about the plight faced by fellow Sunnis at the hands of a minority Allawite regime. Turkish officials, including Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, have in recent days pointedly visited camps near the border where Syrian refugees are being housed in tents.

Erdogan himself has shifted from giving Assad cordial advice to enact reforms three months ago, to describing the crackdown as brutal, complaining that Assad has not taking Turkey’s appeals seriously.

Following yet another Friday marked by deadly clashes – at least 19 deaths were reported across the country – Assad was due to address the nation on Monday on the “current circumstances,” according to Damascus’ SANA news agency.

What he says in that speech, the president’s third since the turmoil began in mid-March, could have an impact on whether Turkey softens its criticism, or comes out more vocally in support of attempts by the international community to confront Assad.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks with Syria's President Bashar Assad during a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, June 7, 2010. (AP Photo/Osman Orsal, Pool)

The U.N. Security Council remains deadlocked over a European-drafted resolution condemning Syria, with Russia and China opposed.

Although Turkey is no longer a member of the council, as a regional leader, a Muslim country and one that has had good ties with Syria, its stance could carry weight with non-permanent council members such as Lebanon, South Africa and Brazil, which have expressed reservations about the resolution.

Earlier this month Erdogan for the first time said Turkey may support a Security Council resolution on Syria.

Ties warm and cool

Erdogan, who won a third term this month, set out early on during his first term to improve relations with Syria following decades of mistrust. Turkey claimed that Syria was supporting Kurdish separatists in Turkey’s southeast; Syria was critical of Turkey’s military ties with Israel.

In 2004 Assad became the first Syrian leader to visit Turkey in more than half a century. Diplomatic and trade relations quickly improved.

After Israel’s military offensive against Hamas in Gaza in the winter of 2008-9, Erdogan led regional condemnation of Israel, winning plaudits in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Turkey and Syria in the spring of 2009 held their first joint military exercise and signed a “strategic cooperation” agreement pledging to strengthen defense ties.

When rumblings of dissent began in Syria following the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Turkey advised Assad to introduce reforms. On March 28, Erdogan told reporters he had spoken with the Syrian leader twice in three days and was confident that a significant reform announcement was imminent.

Two days later, Assad gave his first public response to the unrest. Rather than outline reforms, however, he blamed the protests on a foreign-instigated plot. Erdogan felt slighted.

Assad’s next public statement came on April 16, when he did offer some concessions, including a plan to end emergency rule first implemented in 1963. But still he complained about attempts to “create chaos and sabotage.” Syrian authorities continue to blame the violence on foreign elements and “armed groups.”

Citing unnamed government officials, Turkish media at the weekend said future bilateral relations could depend on the extent to which Assad takes the opportunity this week to announce meaningful reforms.

Murat Yetkin, editor-in-chief of Hurriyet Daily News, wrote that, according to Turkish official sources, if Assad fails to announce reforms necessary to normalize the situation he will “have great difficulty convincing Ankara” of his sincerity from now on.

Assad’s brother, Maher, heads a key army division and is accused of playing a leading role in the crackdown. Al Arabiya television reported Saturday that Turkey is trying to persuade Assad to announce several concessions and reforms, including the removal of Maher Assad from his post.

As Turkey’s criticism has grown, sentiment has also soured in the other direction. Syrian officials, speaking to Arab media on condition of anonymity, have accused Turkey of using the crisis to try to spread its regional dominance, and warning that the “plot” would not succeed.

A week ago, pro-Assad Syrians gathered near Turkey’s embassy in Damascus, chanting slogans against Turkey and trying to set a Turkish flag alight before security forces dispersed the crowd.

During a teleconference briefing on Syria on Friday, a senior U.S. administration official said Assad would probably view the rapprochement with Turkey as one of his foreign policy successes.

“But if you look now at the Turkish public statements, such as Prime Minister Erdogan’s very articulate description of how revolting the violence is, I think you can see that Bashar’s very actions are having an impact on his foreign relations, even on countries which he believed he had built strong alliances with.”

Later in the briefing, the official implied that the relationship was probably over, saying that Iran “seems at this point to be Syria’s last friend.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow