News / Europe

Turkey Moves to Directly Support Syrian Opposition

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (file photo)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (file photo)
Dorian Jones

The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is increasingly taking the lead in supporting the Syrian opposition. Erdoğan condemned the vetoing of a United Nations resolution against Damascus and has announced it will impose its own sanctions. This week saw the start of military exercises on the Syrian border.

The Turkish military is currently holding a five-day military exercise on the Syrian border. The last time such a major exercise occurred was 13 years ago when Ankara threatened to invade Syria unless it expelled the Turkish Kurdish rebel leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The diplomatic correspondent for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, Semih Idiz, says the exercises are aimed at sending a message to the Syrians.

"This will represent a kind of muscle flexing on Turkey's part," said Idiz. "But I think we've got a long way for this to translate into a some kind of military confrontation. But I don't think we are at that stage. But its a clear indication the government has given up on Damascus. and its now concerned about protecting its 850-kilometer border with this country."

Protecting that border is important Idiz says, with the expectation in Ankara that an uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will continue to grow along with a risk of more refugees crossing the border. Already thousands have fled to Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is expected to visit the refugee camps in the near future. Following that visit sanctions are expected to be announced. Mr. Erdogan,  during a visit this week to South Africa, condemned the vetoing of a United Nations motion against Syria.

Erdoğan promised that Turkey and the European Union will move to tighten sanctions against Syria.

Details of the moves remain unclear. Turkey already is imposing an arms embargo.
Last month the Turkish navy intercepted a Syrian bound ship from Iran carrying arms.

But chief economist Emre Yigit of the Istanbul financial trading house Global Securities, says any new measures will have a limited effect.

"We don't know the amount held by the Syrian leaders in Turkish bank, if any. It could hurt them that way," said Yigit. "I dont think the Syrian economy would collapse as a result of Turkish sanctions. It would have an impact, it would make life a little difficult. But it would not stop the Syrian government from having the ability to rule the country as it wished."

Ankara is closely coordinating its sanctions' plan with Washington, says Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and visiting scholar of the Carnegie Institute in Europe, says:

"There have been a number very high level phones calls, conversations between the Turkish leaders and the U.S. leadership," said Ulgen. "And now the two sides are really on the same page and Turkish policy regards to Syria does seem to have the full support of the U.S. administration."

Ankara is also allowing the Syrian opposition to meet and organize in Turkey. The leader of a self styled "Syrian Free Army," made up of defectors from Syria's armed forces, is allowed to organize in Turkey.

Soli Ozel, columnist for the daily newspaper Haberturk, says that Ankara wants to avoid  intervening in Syria.

"Despite all the bravado in the talk, I think Turkey is fundamentally conservative country, it will not want to go beyond certain limits," said Ozel. "But the real problem whether or not you will be able to control every step of the way, in this unfolding problem. We now hear, and I guess its reasonable to expect the opposition to begin arming and I am sure there are plenty of sources that would like to arm the opposition. Once that starts you are  in shifting sands so whatever is your position today, may not hold ground in the future."

With Ankara severing nearly all its ties with Damascus, it seems fully committed to the opposition, whatever consequences that will bring.

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