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Turkey faces awkward situation 13 avril 2012

Posted by Acturca in Economy / Economie, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Gulf News (UAE) April 13, 2012, p. 9

Marwan Kabalan *

It has to tackle the Syrian crisis on its border with the possibility of getting involved in the conflict
 
Turkish-Syrian relations have further deteriorated in recent weeks. Each country blames the other for adopting hostile policies. There is even speculation that the two countries might be on the brink of a full-fledged military confrontation. The shooting of Syrian refugees inside Turkish territories by the Syrian army last week triggered a wave of public anger in Turkey. Speaking from Moscow, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Mua’allem, on the other hand, accused the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of arming, training and providing safe haven for anti-regime forces. It seems that the relationship between the two countries has been brought back to square one, where this sort of hostile language was so common in Damascus and Ankara.
 
The end of what was seen by many as the most successful application of Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s strategy of « zero problems with the neighbours » has come as a vindication for those who have always mocked the idea of alliance between democracy and autocracy. Yet, the fact is that when Davutoglu thought of establishing strong ties with Syria and other neighbours he did not bother much about the domestic composition of these countries. He was rather thinking about how to serve better the national interests of his country.
 
Davutoglu viewed Syria as the only country in the region that borders the three key areas of conflict in the Middle East, namely, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. He believed that if Turkey was to have a greater role in these conflicts then Syria’s strategic location must be recognised and utilised. Davutoglu proved to be right when his theory allowed Turkey to play a key role in these three areas of conflict.
 
Turkey was also interested in developing strong economic ties with Syria and through it with the rest of the Arab world. In October 2009, the Strategic Cooperation Council, composed of ministers of the two countries, was established. Davutoglu’s vision of expanding Turkish influence through strong trade relations with Syria was good news for Turkish investors and businessmen.

Booming trade

Establishing strong economic relations with Syria led to a significant increase in Turkish-Syrian trade, from $824 million (Dh3.02 billion) in 2003 to $1.87 billion in 2010 with the hope of reaching $5 billion by 2012. In addition, there was a considerable increase in the number of Syrian tourists visiting Turkey, from 152,000 in 2003 to 500,000 in 2010; the termination of visa requirements for visits shorter than 90 days played a key role in the success of both tourism and trade. Turkey was also hoping that by establishing strong personal ties between the leaders of the two countries it would further its influence in Syria. Until early 2011, Turkish strategy worked well. The outbreakl of the Syrian uprising put an end to the decade-long honeymoon between the two countries, however. Turkey was quick to discover that its influence does not count when the very existence of the Syrian regime is at stake. After several failed attempts to bring a peaceful end to the crisis, Turkey chose to support the Syrian opposition openly.

Unity government

In the early weeks of the crisis, Turkey lobbied hard to convince the Syrian regime to form a unity government that would include the « outlawed » Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Given the strong ties between Turkey’s AKP government and the Brotherhood, Ankara thought that its inclusion would serve several ends.
 
First, it would further Turkey’s influence inside Syria. Second, it would prevent an all-out civil conflict that would affect Turkey’s security. Third, it would curtail Iran’s influence in Syria. The plan did not quite work. The Syrian regime refused the Turkish proposal, risking further deterioration in the relationship between the two countries. The shift in Turkish policy was also motivated by the expectation that the Al Assad regime would fall quickly under popular pressure. Turkey decided to side with the potential winner — the opposition. Ankara seemed to have learnt from its slow reaction to the revolution in Libya. Having secured more than $15 billion worth of construction contracts for its companies in Libya, Ankara was reluctant to move against the Muammar Gaddafi regime. When Nato’s involvement in the Libyan crisis began in March 2011, the AKP government did not seem to be quite happy. It was not until May that Erdogan called on Gaddafi to step down. Realising that the Libyan regime’s days were numbered, Ankara finally decided to back the Nato air campaign. It sent six vessels to back the naval blockade against Gaddafi’s forces and began supporting the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC).
 
When the Syrian uprising began, Ankara seemed determined not to repeat its mistakes in Libya. But, Syria turned to be a different case. The regime did not fall quickly as had been anticipated, the US and Europe were completely unenthusiastic about intervening in Syria and Russia and China sought to protect the Syrian regime.
 
It seems that Turkey has been left alone to deal with a crisis on its southern border with the possibility of getting involved in a grand regional armed conflict. How Turkey is going to deal with this challenge is everybody’s guess.
 
* Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus, Syria.

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