Turkey is piling pressure on Syria with border military exercises, economic sanctions and the harboring of Syrian opposition groups and army defectors, but Ankara must tread carefully to avoid arousing the suspicion of Arab states or spurring Syrian counter-measures.
Turkey has shifted, in the space of six months, from being Syria’s new best friend forever to a centre of gravity for opposition to President Bashar al-Assad outside the country.
Having started out by advising Assad to exercise restraint and make reforms when pro-democracy unrest first erupted in March, Turkey is now on the verge of invoking sanctions against a government it once sat down with for joint cabinet meetings.
Syrian dissidents abroad, and some who have managed to sneak out of the country, have flocked to Istanbul over the past few months to give the revolution a united political front.
And Turkey has given sanctuary to the most senior Syrian military officer to defect, while this week it began maneuvers in a province over which Syria has had longstanding claims.
“Turkey is clearly taking sides now,” said Cengiz Aktar, professor at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University. “Turkey expects this opposition and the upheaval in the country will eventually finish the job and the revolution will bring an end to the regime.”
But Turkey’s policy shift, which has aligned Ankara more closely with the West, comes with risks.
“Syrian intelligence might use every opportunity to instigate Kurdish violence,” Aktar said, referring to Turkey’s restive minority population.
Aktar said Turkey, whose clout in the Middle East has grown out of a combination of economic growth and secular democracy, could see goodwill evaporate if it is perceived to be meddling in Syria.
“At the end of the day, Turkey risks being told to mind its own business and to first put its house in order. The more it wants to be a soft power the more it is going to be told by the international community to apply the same standards with its Kurds minority.”
For all their closeness over the past decade, the two countries almost went to war in the late 1990s over Syria giving refuge to Kurdish militants fighting the Turkish state.
Living under Turkish protection
Living under Turkish protection, Syrian Colonel Riad al-Asaad exhorts his former comrades to desert to organize the armed struggle he believes is needed to drive Assad from power.
“We assure them (the Syrian people) they should be patient, and God willing, very soon, Bashar will be between their hands,” Asaad told Reuters in an interview on Thursday.
“We must be patient. We hope the Syrian people will be stronger and remain committed to continue to bring down the regime.”
Revolted by the killing of Syrian civilians, and seeing the tide of history turn with the “Arab Spring” of popular uprisings, Turkey has calculated that its long term interest lies in supporting the Syrian people’s struggle for democracy.
That Syria, like Turkey, has a Sunni Muslim majority, while Assad and his clique belong to the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, made that choice even simpler.
The breakdown in their relationship leaves Iran as Syria’s closest backer, though the Russian and Chinese vetoes earlier this week of a U.N. Security Council draft resolution censuring Syria showed Assad retains some support elsewhere.
Anti-Assad factions meeting in Istanbul -- ranging from Islamists through liberals, along with ethnic and tribal leaders -- have coalesced under a revolutionary Syrian National Council with a stated aim of ousting Assad within six months.
Offering itself as a potential future interim government, this broad-based opposition group has helped instill some confidence among governments, like Turkey, who disapprove of Assad but had not known who to support.
Hitherto, they have feared Assad’s fall would leave Syria without a central authority capable of stopping the country sliding into religious, sectarian and ethnic violence.
One Western diplomat, asked about Turkey’s hesitation in the past to ditch Assad, said Ankara had come to see Assad as “the devil we know.”
Turkish sanctions against Syria
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who had previously enjoyed a close rapport with Assad, is expected to visit a camp in the border province of Hatay sheltering some of the 7,500 Syrians who have fled the violence at home.
Due to the death of his mother, Erdogan delayed a visit that had been set for Sunday, but he has already promised to announce sanctions against the Syrian government.
Turkey is expected to freeze bank accounts held by members of Assad's inner circle, cut ties with Syrian state banks, and halt deals between state-run companies, notably in oil and gas, while avoiding measures that could hurt the people.
Erdogan predicted last month that Assad will be ousted “sooner or later,” but how far he is willing to go to make it happen is an open question.
“What we have at the moment ... is a war of words between Assad and Erdogan,” said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based security analyst. “It’s a bit like two jilted lovers, because they were very, very close. There is a lot of personal spite.”
Compounding tensions this week, Turkey began military exercises in Hatay province, which Syria has had longstanding claims over since it was ceded to Turkey in 1939 when France controlled Syria and Lebanon.
The exercises, relatively small-scale logistical drills involving a large contingent of less experienced reservist troops, are seen as a symbolic reminder to Damascus that the second largest army in NATO is just across the border.
“It is part of the Turkish government’s campaign to apply increased psychological pressure on the regime in Damascus because previous warnings have gone unheeded,” said Fadi Hakura, analyst at Chatham House think-tank in London.
Turkey has begun intercepting arms bound for Syria passing through its waters and air space.
Hosting Syrian rebels
Some analysts say it is easy to foresee Turkey eventually helping to equip and organize Syrian rebels, like Colonel Asaad, who want to wage an armed struggle against those units of Assad’s security forces leading the repression of protesters.
Other analysts believe it would be a mistake for Turkey to go beyond support for peaceful protests by letting itself become a rear base for an armed opposition or being seen as a provocateur in Syria’s internal conflict, especially if it developed a stronger sectarian dimension.
Turkey, after all, is vulnerable to mischief-making among ethnic Kurds and developments that could cause unease within its own Alevi minority community.
Speculation keeps resurfacing that Turkey’s military could end up entering Syria to create a buffer zone for the protection of Syrians from Assad’s security forces.
During the 1991 Gulf War, about half a million Iraqi Kurds fled to Turkey, returning only after Western powers, along with Turkish contingents, set up a safe haven across the border.
But analysts see this option still as a last resort for Ankara, and one that is unlikely to be taken without first getting a U.N. mandate.
As it has done in other Arab countries gripped by upheaval, Turkey has played on sentimental attachments to the Ottoman era, when Istanbul counted vast swathes of Arabia, North Africa and the Balkans among its dominions.
Whereas Erdogan has earned admiration among Arabs for championing the Palestinian cause and leading democratic change in Turkey, analysts say Arabs would not like to see Turkish troops crossing into Syria.
“I don’t think Turkey ... would be stupid enough to intervene militarily,” Jenkins said. “The Arab world doesn’t want to see Turkish boots on the ground in an Arab country.”