Why Erdogan Can’t Let Assad Down

Analysis by Jacques N. Couvas

HAVANA TIMES, March 29 (IPS) — A new week, a new campaign for Ankara’s diplomacy. After a victorious arm-twisting on Saturday with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to divert the leadership of the aerial war against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi from France to NATO, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned his attention to trouble closer to home, Syria.

Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had daily phone calls during the weekend, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu followed up with a teleconference with his Syrian counterpart Wallid al-Mouellem to offer Turkey’s assistance in the event of a reform process towards democratic regime.

The head of Turkish National Intelligence (MIT), Hakan Fidan, was dispatched on Sunday to Damascus to express his government’s concerns about spreading social unrest from Daraa, in Syria’s southwest, to larger cities such as Latakia, a Mediterranean port nearer the Turkish border.

Close to 100 demonstrators have died and hundreds wounded in the clashes with the Syrian security and military forces since the rallies began two weeks ago.

Domestic problems in Syria are of particular sensitivity to Turkey. Although the two countries still have open territorial issues, upheaval in one may result in destabilizing the other. Their 800 km common border provides safe passage to political activists with mischievous intentions.

A major concern for Turkey is the Kurdish population in Syria of 1.4 million, which, in case of collapse of Assad’s regime could collude with the estimated 15 million or more ethnic Kurds in Turkey, 7 million Iranian Kurds, and 6 million Northern Iraqi Kurds to claim an independent state.

In anticipation of such eventuality, Ankara and Damascus formed in 2009 a High Level Strategic Cooperation Council (HSCC) and held in April 2010 their first joint military exercises.

Turkey has since 1978 been in armed conflict with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a belligerent ‘independentista’ organization classified as terrorist group by Turkey, the EU and the U.S.

The hostilities have caused the death of at least 40,000 Turkish soldiers and gendarmes, PKK guerillas, and civilians, while the number of wounded has exceeded 30,000, and that of the missing is estimated at 17,000.

A study in 1998 by Brunswick University in the U.S. reported that at least 3 million people had by that time been displaced in south-eastern Turkey and the area bordering Iraq, for war operational reasons, while 3,000 villages were totally or partially destroyed.

Kurdish autonomy is a sensitive issue in public opinion in Turkey, Iran and Syria alike, where territorial integrity has ranked at the top of these countries’ priorities since their respective independence from Western rule.

The current regimes in Tehran and Damascus are intransigent on Kurdish freedoms, while Erdogan’s government, in power since 2002, has begun a dialogue process with the Turkish ethnic Kurds to enable cultural autonomy, which, after this year’s national elections, might evolve into devolution of some governance powers to the local administrations. The main opposition, nationalist parties and the military are, however, implacable in their hostility to such perspective.

The Turkish nervousness about the Syrian domestic situation is also influenced by economic and geopolitical concerns. After a long period of cold neighborhood relations, with occasional threats of armed confrontation, Assad and Erdogan have crossed the fence to develop a cozy relationship, building on the settlement in 1998 of old political disputes.

On the strategic plane, both countries see cooperation as being instrumental to maintain the geopolitical status quo of Iraq’s territorial integrity, frustrate Pan-Kurdish aspirations, and to keep Israel’s and Iran’s testosterone on check.

The Turkish Premier, speaking on Monday to journalists, confirmed he had urged the Syrian president over the weekend to adopt a conciliatory spirit with his people.

“We advised Mr. Assad that responding to the people’s years-old demands positively, with a reformist approach, would help Syria overcome the problems more easily,” said Erdogan. “I did not get a ‘No’ answer,” he commented, adding that he expected reforms to be announced by Damascus this week.

Syria has a long record of iron-fist governance style, aimed at securing the survival of the ruling Ba’ath party. Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president and leader of the coup which installed it in power in 1963, immediately imposed an emergency law, which suspended practically all civil liberties and is still in force today.

The Ba’ath party, dominated by Allawis, a tolerant religious Shia Muslim denomination, has been at odds with the Sunni movement in Syria. Hafez al-Assad in 1982 violently crushed a Sunni Islamist Brotherhood revolt, killing 20,000 rebels. Tolerance and appetite for power did, obviously, not coexist.

Amnesty International has repeatedly ranked Syria as the country with the most repressive laws in the Middle East. In an attempt to calm the spirits, Bashar al-Assad offered last week to amend the emergency law and allow for new parties to be formed. The gesture was turned down by the demonstrators, who insist on full democratization of thy system.

Turkish business executives and political observers have been recommending that Erdogan include in his prescription to al-Assad to also work on reducing corruption, clientelism and cronyism, which are endemic in the Syrian economy and sources of poverty for the population. They hamper foreign direct investment from Turkey to Syria.

But Turkey — a majority Sunni state with religious minorities that were “tamed” by the military in the 20th century — feels uncomfortable giving lessons to its neighbor, an increasingly important trading partner.

With ongoing domestic unrest next door, but also in Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco, Ankara’s Middle Eastern and Northern African ambitious plans are poised to return to the drawing board.