August 22nd, 2012
04:17 PM ET

Turkey’s Syria split

By Soner Cagaptay, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a GPS contributor. You can find his other posts here. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

Following this week’s suicide bombing in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, Turkey’s government has hinted at Syrian complicity in the attacks, with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu noting, for example, parallels between the bombing and the Syrian regime’s tactics.

Such a mindset brings Turkey a step closer to taking action against Damascus. Yet despite such comments, the country is far from united around a policy for taking down Bashar al-Assad’s regime anytime soon. These domestic differences have some interesting echoes from almost a decade ago, when Turkey was torn over involvement in another conflict – the Iraq war.

In 2003, Turkey’s recently elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government supported U.S. efforts in the Iraq war despite significant domestic opposition. In doing so, the Islamist-rooted organization was apparently keen to enamor itself with Washington, thereby gaining leverage against the then powerful Turkish military.

Given how polarized the Turkish political landscape is between the AKP and its secularist opponents, the party’s support for U.S. foreign policy resulted in an interesting twist: secularist Turks and their pro-Western military opposed the war in Iraq, while the Islamist- rooted AKP supported it.

Almost a decade later, Turkish politics are still polarized – in last year’s elections, the country was split down the middle, with almost exactly half of voters opting for the ruling party. Ankara’s position over al-Assad’s regime has led to a 2003-like scenario all over again: the AKP stands with Washington on Syria, while its domestic opponents take issue with the idea of Ankara confronting al-Assad.

For over a year, the main opposition, the secular Republican People’s Party, has refused to support the AKP’s Syria policy, although the leftist party has edged a little closer to the government’s position, proposing an international conference to tackle the crisis.

Meanwhile, having been defanged by the AKP over the past decade, the Turkish military now shies away from clearly voicing opposition to the government’s policies, though in private the military is known to be urging the government to ease up over Syria lest Turkey risk being left to confront Syria – without U.S. backing.

But nationalist Turks, including those under the AKP’s big right-wing tent as well as those in the opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP), have started to more openly criticize Ankara’s Syria policy. Such concerns are no doubt exacerbated by recent media reports that Turkey not only hosts the Syrian opposition, including the Syrian National Council (SNC), but might also be providing arms to the rebels.

Opponents of this policy believe that Ankara’s policies could usher in a dramatic collapse of the al-Assad regime that could be taken advantage of by Syrian Kurdish groups pushing for an independent Kurdish state. Such groups also fear that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group that has waged a violent campaign against Turkey for decades, could take advantage of the post-al-Assad vacuum to establish itself firmly inside Syria.

But even some core AKP members seem to disagree with policies that could precipitate al-Assad’s downfall. Take, for instance, the small group of pro-Tehran AKP politicians who are known to have sympathies for Iran. This group certainly doesn’t relish the prospect of Ankara becoming embroiled in a proxy war against Iran in Syria, with Tehran standing behind the al-Assad regime and Turkey supporting the opposition.

Back in 2003, the AKP’s plans to offer the U.S. assistance in Iraq were thwarted when a vote in the Turkish parliament to authorize the war failed on a technicality – the required quorum wasn’t present, despite the AKP mustering a majority of the votes (although opinion polls showed significant public opposition to the war). Fast forward almost a decade and Turkey is divided again – and the government’s chances of pushing forward a more muscular policy are by no means guaranteed.

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Topics: Syria • Turkey

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Patrick-2

    Hey, where's my post? I guess that it wasn't politically correct enough!

    August 22, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Reply
    • Ferhat Balkan

      It happens to me too. I think it's specific words that CNN has deemed as offensive. Not exactly sure what they are though.

      August 22, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Reply
      • Marine5484

        I too had an earlier post blocked here. I never use any of that filthy Tea Party lingo nor say anything extremely hateful on any of my posts. I'm just a moderate posting a moderate point of view here.

        August 23, 2012 at 1:37 am |
  2. Ferhat Balkan

    Turkey will not engage itself in war with Syria. Not unless it really has to. No one wants to commit to a war, unless they're prepared for drastic effects on their own economy. The main problem here is the Kurds who want independence from Syria and want to create a 'Kurdistan' in the North regions. These groups (mainly the PKK and PYD) are known for their terrorism and violence through border incursions into Turkey (who has the 2nd largest army in NATO). As such, these Kurdish groups represent a security threat to the entire region and could drag other NATO countries into the conflict as well. Currently, the PYD is claiming they only want autonomy and not independence, but that's just a ploy to win support for their cause. These groups represent a significant risk in future violence to Turkey and should be dealt with before it gets out of hand.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      I wish that you would cease to call the Kurdish PKK "terrorists", Ferhat. That's tantamount to calling the founding fathers of this country the same thing. Do you deem George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin "terrorists", Ferhat? I sincerely hope not!

      August 23, 2012 at 1:33 am | Reply
      • Ferhat Balkan

        The 'founding fathers' didn't resort to killing women, children, recruit 16-17 year old kids and smuggle drugs to fund their campaign last time I checked. All these things are the hallmarks of what defines a terrorist organization. The EU and US has labeled them as terrorists, why can't you?

        August 23, 2012 at 2:36 am |
    • samianquazi

      Turkey hasn't been able to stop Kurdish freedom fighters since 1983, so what makes you think Turkey can obliterate Kurdish desires for liberty now?

      August 23, 2012 at 1:34 am | Reply
      • Ferhat Balkan

        It's the only language that they understand. I'm sorry to break it out to you, but the only way the conflict will ever end is for the PKK to lay down their arms and surrender. They claim that they fight for Kurdish rights in Turkey, but all they do is kill innocent people. Just 2 days ago at least nine people, including four children, were killed by a remote-controlled car bomb in southeastern Turkey. If they think that that will break the will of the Turks, they're gravely mistaken. There's already an autonomous region in northern Iraq for the Kurds, I'm sure they'll enjoy their 'Liberty' there.

        August 23, 2012 at 2:46 am |
  3. Benjamin Hayleys

    if we closely examin what happens in eastern turkey is that syrian regime is feeding the PKK to attack turkey these days,just to keep them busy with inside business and ousidet of syria's business so the regime can gain power, i personally hope that iran gets invaded by the us & israel and teach how to keep the terrorizm down, iran has good ties with PKK i believe because they are affraid of the PKK, Same for syrian regime they are affraid of the PKK very much.. and pkk is the most feared most dangerous and powerfull and proffesional terrorist organization because it has so much support from the western (draging muslims into fight with muslims) anyway i personally think that the PKK does not stand for the kurdish people, all we can see from PKK is the never endless terror and killing ,brainwashed people that are made to kill and kill only and does not serve any human or human race, thats just the true face of terror ,these are not facts these are my opinion about whats going on in the east turkey.

    August 23, 2012 at 3:12 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Instability in Syria emboldened the country's Kurds to move in and fill the void, as Assad's forces were deployed from peripheral areas to defend Aleppo.

    August 23, 2012 at 5:57 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      By turning a blind eye to it, Assad had let the Syrian Kurds be self-governed. The Turkish PKK sees a chance to achieve the Kurdish goal, should Assad fall.

      August 23, 2012 at 5:59 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        Ankara walks a tightrope when it comes to dealing with Syria and Assad knows it and infiltrates. For Turkey it's a red rag to a bull.

        August 23, 2012 at 7:19 am |
      • Quigley

        If the Kurdish PKK achives it's goal in Turkey j.von hettlingen, this could be the one and only bright spot to come with the "fall" of the Assad regime in Syria. It's high time that the Kurds set of their own home state in the Middle East!

        August 23, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  5. JosephMcCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007©™/JoeCollins/J.Foster Dulles/Marine5484/OldManClark

    I am the same guy. I am a useless piece of camel dung. I post anti-American, anti GB, anti-Semite, anti-India, anti-modern anything because I am a good Moslem. I have stolen Patrick’s moniker because I am so ashamed of myself and I post the most stupid comments because I am an imbecile. When people get angry with me, I claim they are the stupid ones. If I am not careful, my brain will explode because it is so full of hate.

    August 23, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Reply

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