Thursday, May 26, 2011

Young Turks and the Syrian spring

by Rime Allaf

Since the day Turkish leaders decided to turn their attention to the immediate neighborhood while Europe kept them waiting, Turkey's standing has gone from strength to strength in the Arab and Muslim worlds, even as it remains the only Israeli ally in the region and a member of NATO to boot. The more Turkey adopted regional causes, the more Washington and Tel Aviv worried.

It became clear that Turkey's new position would be problematic for the US even before the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Refusing to allow NATO allies the right to fly over its territory, Turkey made its opposition to the war very public, winning it accolades and gratitude from Arabs and Muslims alike, who suddenly were discovering a country and a people who had been practical aliens a few years before.

It was clear to everyone but the Syrian regime, apparently, that the Turkish government would never be able to simply look the other way and pretend it hadn't noticed while remaining silent as the repression mounted and the killings intensified. 

The high-level diplomatic hand that Turkey extended to Syria had no effect whatsoever on the level of repression. Consequently, the criticism emanating from various figures at the highest echelons of the Turkish government began to rise, and the diplomatic shuttling by senior intelligence and government officials to Damascus began to decrease in the face of stony silence from the Syrian regime and its complete disregard for the suggested urgent reform package that might have changed the course of the protests.

None of this should have been surprising or unexpected to the Syrian regime. Its reactions to various Turkish statements, however, were surprisingly amateurish and counterproductive. After Prime Minister Erdogan's warning against another Hama massacre, the Syrian ambassador to Ankara claimed that this was political maneuvering from the government and pre-electoral pandering. Was he insinuating that the Turkish government's closeness with the Syrian regime existed despite Turks' dislike of it? And if the Turkish people had their way, would their government not pursue close ties with Syria?

This was not the expected response from a neighbor with whom visa requirements have been dropped and borders removed, and who had been a political and economic supporter for much of the past decade. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had already pledged Turkey's support for the legitimate demands of the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria.

The Syrian regime's brutal response to the protests has pushed its allies to a new brink. Turkey's position should have been better managed and treasured in light of the cordial relations between the two country's leaders, and the increasing ties between their business communities. As international pressure mounts on the Syrian regime, with sanctions imposed by both the US and the European Union, it remains to be seen whether and how damage control is possible after Turkey's general election on June 12, and after the cessation of all violence against peaceful protesters. For the time being, "young Turks" all over Syria are still the subject of Ankara's concerns.-

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