By Jonathon Burch and Simon Cameron-Moore, Reuters
ANTAKYA, Turkey/ISTANBUL — 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 countermeasures. Turkey has shifted, in the space of six months, from offering Syria measured support to becoming a center 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. 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 good will evaporate if it is perceived to be meddling in Syria. 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, Syrian Colonel Riad al-As’aad exhorts his former comrades to desert to organize the armed struggle he believes is needed to drive Assad from power. 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 Shi’ite 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.