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October 04, 2013

Syrian Intervention Renewal an Ankara Balancing Act

by Dorian Jones

Turkey's parliament voted Thursday to extend a mandate authorizing deployment of troops in Syria if necessary for another year.
 
Passing parliament with a show of hands, the law was strongly opposed by the country's main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which condemns the ruling AK Party’s policy of backing Syrian rebel forces, and claims the mandate would further ratchet up regional tensions.
 
Despite the mandate's passage, Semih Idiz, diplomatic columnist for the Turkish daily newspaper Taraf, says Ankara is unlikely to use it.
 
"I can’t see unilateral intervention on Turkey’s part unless there is some major national security threat involved," he said. "The government has the mandate, but it does not have the opposition on its side or public opinion on its side. So it's very unlikely it will want use the mandate to suit its own purposes."
 
Although the AK Party has been at the forefront of opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, public opinion polls find a growing majority of Turks oppose the party's stance.
 
Over the past few months, Turkey has bolstered its forces along the border, where it has been aiding the rebel forces, and last month shot down a Syrian government helicopter which it said had violated its airspace.
 
Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, says Turkish attitudes on Syria will continue to harden as the crisis worsens.
 
"[Turks] believe this is going to raise security issues in Turkey," he said. "They also believe Turkey is quite isolated and, given that [Syria] is [a] neighboring country, Turkey is going to be much more [vulnerable] to retaliatory action by Syria and its allies."
 
Assad on Friday warned in a Turkish television interview that Turkey could pay a high price for its support of al-Qaida-linked groups that are fighting his regime.
 
While Ankara strongly denies supporting al-Qaida, analysts say groups allegedly linked to the terror organization operate along the border, adding to growing unease on the part of the Turkish public over the government’s Syria policy.
 
Soli Ozel, an international relations expert at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, says the concerns won't result in changes to the mandate.
 
"They put all their eggs in one basket, and they are committed — over-committed, super-committed — to the departure of Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria," she said. "They thought Bashar would go very easily, and the Islamists were set to gain power, which the current government in Turkey feels very comfortable and ideologically akin to."
 
But Idiz says public opinion will inevitably factor into government policymaking with elections looming and large numbers of Turkish troops and tanks amassing on the border.
 
"We have a spate of elections coming up in Turkey, starting with local elections in early 2014 to be followed by presidential and then parliamentary elections going on to 2015," he said. "So with this highly politically-charged environment, I would say the government will be very, very alert to how the public feels."