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Turkey Struggles to Contain Fallout of Syrian Conflict

  • Henry Ridgwell

As the Syria conflict grinds on, neighboring Turkey is struggling to deal with the multiple threats of a refugee crisis and a resurgence in Kurdish militant activity sparked by the Syrian uprising.

The centuries-old bazaar in the Turkish border city of Antakya is a trading point along the ancient Silk Road and for millennia has been a center of religion and sectarian conflict.

The city lies just a few kilometers from Syria and has become the Turkish headquarters for rebels of the Free Syria Army who are trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

It is most evident in the border province of Hatay that Turkey is being pulled ever deeper into Syria's conflict.

In Antakya earlier this year, VOA interviewed Ahmad Al-Kanatre Abu Hamza, the commander of the Omar al-Mukhtar brigade of the Free Syria Army.

He says the rebels need international help for a no-fly zone because Assad's jets are firing on unarmed people and targeting anything that moves.

President Assad's jets and helicopters are still firing on Syrian towns and villages.

In October, Turkey fired shells into Syria for six days in a row, in response to Syrian artillery falling in Hatay province.

Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at Chatham House in London, says Ankara has overplayed its diplomatic hand. "It exaggerated its influence vis-à-vis Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria. The Turkish leadership also assumed that Bashar al Assad will collapse quickly and that did not happen," he said. "So what we see now in Syria is a protracted sectarian civil war, very destructive, and that's a scenario that Turkey did not plan for."

The consequences of that destruction are spilling into Turkey; the daily flow of refugees has on occasion exceeded 2,000. Most are housed in sprawling camps where the tough conditions are made worse with the onset of winter.

Ankara has called for the international community to do more to help.

"At the present time it might be even 150,000 or approaching 200,000 refugees. And Turkey is not in a position to establish a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border without the approval and coordination of Washington," stated Hakura.

Meanwhile the Syrian conflict has re-ignited Turkey's long-standing battle with Kurdish militants, known as the PKK.

Syrian Kurds now control a larger swathe of northern Syria after government forces withdrew.

Robert Lowe is manager of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. "For the Turkish state, the development of what is becoming an autonomous region for Kurds in northern Syria is very troubling. It's deeply unwelcome to them and I don't think they've been terribly sure how to respond. And they are very worried that that will strengthen the PKK in its fight against the Turkish state," he noted.

Lowe says the Syrian civil war is not only dragging in Turkey but also neighboring Lebanon -- which has witnessed an upsurge in violence along sectarian lines -- and regional powers Iraq, Iran and the Gulf states.

"For Syrians the huge worry is that outside powers become even more involved and their own struggles are played out on Syrian soil," said Lowe.

While Syrian rebels appear to be making gains in some areas, analysts say neither side appears strong enough to tip the balance of the conflict. They predict events in 2013 are likely to take a growing toll on the Syrian people.