Turkey's support for rebels in neighboring Syria is helping to fuel anti-government protests that continue to unsettle the country. But analysts say the demonstrations aren’t about to prompt Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government to alter its policy on the Syrian conflict.
Since the end of 2011, areas of southern Turkey have served as a logistical "rear base" for the rebels to rest, resupply and organize. Turkey also hosts about 400,000 Syrian refugees, living both in camps provided by the government and in private housing. At least 40,000 more are camped just along the border, apparently believing that proximity to Turkey affords them some protection. The Turkish government has spent more than $1 billion in humanitarian aid for Syrians, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The government’s Syria policy has fostered unease among many Turks, who worry that their country could become embroiled in the Syrian conflict. Those concerns have provided one source of fuel for anti-government protests that have vexed Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party since the start of June.
"I am against war with Syria because they are our neighbors and brothers," said Eray, a 33-year-old anti-government protester in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district. For Eray, Turkey’s support for the rebels is tantamount to going to war with Damascus. Syria should resolve its own problems, he added.
Eray and other protesters have accused the government of supplying the rebels with weapons, a claim that Turkish authorities deny. He contended the government is also making citizens more vulnerable by allowing the fighters, some of whom are sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s Sunni extremist ideology, to move about freely within Turkey. Many protesters cite a May 11 double-car bombing, which killed 52 people in the southwestern town of Reyhanli, along the Syrian border, as an example of the hazards already created by Turkey’s policy on Syria.
In the southeastern province of Hatay, neighboring Syria, opposition to Ankara’s support for the rebels, along with close family and cultural ties to Syria, played a key role in bringing citizens onto the streets, according to social media and news reports.
Ankara’s apparent reliance on the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend approach toward its support for Syrian rebels, even if it means turning a blind eye to the activities of religious extremists on the rebel side, also has dismayed protesters beyond border areas.
Currently, the intensity of the protests, as well as the number of protesters, isn’t producing enough popular pressure to cause the government to rethink its strategy. A stalemate of sorts has taken hold. "Something dramatic needs to happen on the ground [in Syria] to unfreeze the situation," said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
At the same time, the protests have had one critical effect on Turkey, as far as Syria is concerned. The disturbances have caused the country to lose credibility in the region, and appear weak in the eyes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Barkey said.
Amid the protests, speculation has mounted that Turkey may facilitate potential US efforts to funnel arms to Syrian rebels. Asked about the possibility of US arms shipments across Turkish territory, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to comment. “We don’t know yet what the United States is going to do,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Barkey believes the government now should engage in the Turkish public in dialogue to explain that it is trying to provide shelter to Syrians and respect the right to self-defense. “There’s enough evidence out there to make sense of why Turkey does what it does,” he said.
Given the degree of violence that Assad’s regime has inflicted upon Syrians, Ankara’s existing policy likely will remain tough to sell to Turkish protesters. Most Turks never championed the AKP’s “post-Ottoman” outreach to the Middle East, nor do they trust the party’s claims to be concerned about Syria on humanitarian grounds, said one protester in Istanbul. “Going East creates tensions in people’s minds,” she added.
There is also a religious factor in the debate. Emrullah Uslu, a terrorism expert at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University, noted that the government is concerned that many members of the leftist organizations instrumental in organizing the protests are Alevis, a Muslim sect similar to the Alawite faith of the Assads.
The government has continued its crackdown on protesters, using anti-terrorism laws to detain at least 30 people in Istanbul on July 16. "Ankara is afraid of the fact that Syria may use these Alevi factions against Turkey, and they are afraid of seeing any Alevi-Sunni clashes in Turkey,” said Uslu.
Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.