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Most Turks Oppose Taking Sides in Syrian Conflict

  • Dorian Jones

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, May 11, 2012.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, May 11, 2012.

ISTANBUL - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been among the strongest opponents of the Syrian government and its ongoing violent crackdown on dissent. But a recent opinion poll found a majority of Turks are calling for a more neutral approach. It's the latest setback for the Turkish leader over Syria.

An opinion poll by the Ankara Social Research Center published this month has found that more than two-thirds of those polled opposed any intervention by Turkey in Syria. The poll also revealed that a majority, even those who support the Turkish prime minister's party, believed Ankara should not take sides in the conflict.

In a shopping plaza in central Istanbul, those poll numbers are echoed:

We should stay neutral, this man says. We should not be involved. It is our neighbor and it is a civil war, which means we should not take sides. It will be very dangerous for us to get involved.

But Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, says it comes down to a long tradition of Turks having little interest in foreign affairs.

"Turks don't feel concerned with that [Syria]," said Aktar. "Like they don't feel concerned with any similar disaster happening in the close vicinity or far away. They don't pay attention. They are not interested in foreign developments."

Analysts say the prime minister, who is renowned for closely following opinion polls, is likely to be disappointed by the indifference - if not opposition - to his government's stance towards Syria.

The poll comes as Erdogan is facing growing criticism from the media and, reportedly, from his own diplomatic corps, that he has misread the Syrian conflict.

Sinan Ulgen is a former senior Turkish diplomat who now heads EDAM, the Istanbul-based international affairs research institute.

"I think Ankara decided to burn bridges too fast too prematurely," said Ulgen. "It has decided to support the opposition groups - both the Syrian National Council and Free Syrian Army - with the belief it will help Ankara in a post-Assad period. However, it turns out the Assad regime has proven more resilient than initially thought. Now Ankara has to re-engineer a new policy."

A report in The New York Times Thursday alleges that CIA agents working with their Turkish counterparts are facilitating the supply of arms to Syrian rebels. Turkish officials have so far not commented on the report. But earlier this month, a senior Turkish diplomat flatly denied that Ankara would allow the supply of weapons to rebels.

International relations expert Aktar says the prime minister is increasingly frustrated by his Western allies over Syria.

"Unfortunately [he] miscalculated the interventionist will of his partners," he said. "He became more realistic as he probably tested the will of his partners, especially the Americans and the French. And, as he can't do it alone, he has toned down his ambitions."

Turks are not the only ones with a hands-off attitude toward the Assad government. According to a study by U.S.-based Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, a vast majority of Jordanians, Egyptians and Tunisians would like to see Assad step down. But, among those countries, there is limited support for tougher international economic sanctions or Arab military intervention, and very little support for Western military action.

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