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Despite Bold Talk on Syria, Turkey Sees Limits of Its Power 17 mars 2012

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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The New York Times (USA) March 17, 2012, p. 4

By By Dan Bilefsky, Istanbul

As the lethal crackdown by the Syrian government intensifies, Turkey has been struggling in the face of a spiraling crisis on its doorstep that is exposing the limits of its leadership in the region.

In the year since the conflict in Syria began, the Turkish government has sought to play a leading role in stemming the crisis, engaging in aggressive diplomacy at the Arab League and, more recently, calling for the establishment of humanitarian corridors in Syria to help protect civilians. Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has likened President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian strongman who plunged his country into an ethnically driven civil war.

But for all of its bluster and stated resolve, Turkey has been stymied in its ability to follow through with anything concrete. Officials and analysts say Turkey is extremely wary of engaging in any unilateral military action, mindful of the perils of igniting a sectarian conflict on its own border, alienating public opinion in the Arab world or, worse, inadvertently instigating regional war.

The conflict in Syria has presented Turkey with an opportunity, both perilous and promising.

« The stakes are very high for Turkey in Syria, » said Soli Ozel, a columnist for Haberturk, a leading Turkish newspaper. « If Turkey proves to be ineffectual in resolving the Syrian conflict, then all of the claims of its regional prowess will take a big hit. »

Turkish officials say they have not ruled out having their military participate in an international plan to create a buffer zone in the event that Mr. Assad continues to kill his own people and an even larger influx of refugees ensues. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the possibility again on Friday, telling reporters in the capital, Ankara, that « a buffer zone, a security zone, are things being studied. » But that idea has been discussed since the early days of the conflict with no concrete steps taken by Turkey or other nations toward carrying it out.

What has accelerated, though, has been the exodus of refugees despite the presence of Syrian forces along the border with Turkey. On Thursday, Turkish officials said more than 1,000 Syrians had crossed over in the past 24 hours, with more than 14,700 Syrians now sheltered in five camps in Hatay, a Turkish province on the border.

Turkish officials said the country was making contingency plans in the event of a large inflow of refugees, as Syrians demonstrate a willingness to brave an area that has been mined and military forces willing to shoot unarmed civilians. Turkey is to open a refugee camp near the southern town of Kilis next month to host 10,000 more Syrians. Another camp is being built at Ceylanpinar, near the eastern end of the border, for up to 20,000 people, officials said.

Yet that is as far as Turkey is willing to go in terms of unilateral action, analysts say. It will not act alone to impose a buffer zone in Syria because, they say, Russia and Iran are backing Syria, and Turkey does not want to risk a confrontation. They say Turkey also fears that boots on the ground could undermine its popularity in a region where memories of Ottoman rule still run deep.

Despite its limited room to maneuver, Turkey has been jockeying to position itself to have influence in a post-Assad Syria. It is hosting the Syrian opposition, including the Syrian National Council, and the rebel Free Syrian Army, about 10,000 soldiers that are being housed in an army camp in Turkey near the Syrian border. Neither group has proved to be cohesive or effective enough to present a viable challenge to the power of the Syrian government.

As Mr. Assad continues to cling to power, and divisions in the fractured Syrian opposition intensify, Turkey risks finding itself the patron of weak opposition forces.

Turkey has been playing a leading role in marshaling a coalition to put international pressure on Syria. At the same time, American and Turkish officials say, the Syrian crisis has made Mr. Erdogan an indispensable ally to President Obama, helping to overcome some of the tensions caused by a break between Turkey and Israel.

Yet the conflict has also laid bare the limits of Turkey’s power in the region. Before the Syrian conflict erupted, Turkey was emerging as one of Syria’s closest allies, with the two countries holding joint cabinet sessions and Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Assad even vacationing together. Turkey’s 500-mile border with Syria is its longest, and trade between the countries more than tripled to $2.5 billion in 2010.

But despite years of diplomatic engagement and economic investment, Turkey could not persuade Mr. Assad to cease the violence and move ahead with political reform. The conflict in Syria is seen as a crucial test for Turkey as it struggles to carry out its newly muscular foreign policy in the region. Turkey’s aspirations to join the European Union are all but dormant. The conflict with Cyprus appears as intractable as ever. Efforts to reach a solution over Armenia are at an impasse. Diplomatic ties with Israel are frozen over an Israeli commando raid in May 2010 on a vessel that tried to reach Gaza from Turkey. Iran remains deeply suspicious of Turkey’s agreement to host a NATO missile shield.

Bordered by Syria, Iraq and Iran, Turkey, a majority Sunni country of 79 million, risks becoming mired by the sectarian divisions convulsing its neighbors. While Syria is tipping toward civil war, Iraq is once again buffeted by sectarian strife while Iran has aligned itself firmly behind the Assad government.

Sami Kohen, a foreign affairs columnist at Milliyet, a leading newspaper, noted that Turkey has a significant population of Alevis, a Muslim sect that shares certain beliefs with Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect, some of whom are sympathetic to Mr. Assad and could become politicized.

At the same time, Turkish officials express concern that Syria, backed by Iran, could seek to embolden the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., as a means to punish Turkey for supporting the Syrian opposition.

While Turkey would clearly benefit if Mr. Assad were overthrown, analysts note that Arab countries would be loath to see Turkey exert too much influence. « Arab countries don’t want Turkey to be the kingmaker in Syria, » said Mr. Ozel, the columnist for Haberturk. « Arabs are Arabs, and Turks are Turks. »

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting.


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