Despite Bold Talk on Syria, Turkey Sees Limits of Its Power
As the lethal crackdown by the Syrian government intensifies, Turkey has been struggling in the face of a spiraling crisis on its doorstep that is exposing the limits of its leadership in the region.
In the year since the conflict in Syria began, the Turkish government has sought to play a leading role in stemming the crisis, engaging in aggressive diplomacy at the Arab League and, more recently, calling for the establishment of humanitarian corridors in Syria to help protect civilians. Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, recently likened President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian strongman who plunged his country into an ethnically driven civil war.
But for all of its bluster and stated resolve, Turkey has been stymied in its ability to follow through with anything concrete. Officials and analysts say the country is extremely wary of engaging in any unilateral military action, mindful of the perils of igniting a sectarian conflict on its own border, alienating public opinion in the Arab world or, worse, inadvertently instigating regional war.
The conflict in Syria has presented Turkey with an opportunity, both perilous and promising.
“The stakes are very high for Turkey in Syria,” said Soli Ozel, a columnist for Haberturk, a leading Turkish newspaper. “If Turkey proves to be ineffectual in resolving the Syrian conflict, then all of the claims of its regional prowess will take a big hit.”
Turkish officials say they have not ruled out having their military participate in an international plan to create a buffer zone in the event that Mr. Assad continues to slaughter his own people and an even larger influx of refugees ensues. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, raised the possibility again on Friday, telling reporters in the capital, Ankara, that “a buffer zone, a security zone, are things being studied.” But that idea has been discussed since the early days of the conflict with no concrete steps taken by Turkey or other nations toward carrying it out.
What has accelerated, though, has been the exodus of refugees despite the presence of Syrian forces along the border with Turkey. On Thursday, Turkish officials said more than 1,000 Syrians had crossed over in the past 24 hours, with more than 14,700 Syrians now sheltered in five camps built in Hatay, a Turkish province on the border.
Turkish officials said the country was making contingency plans in the event of a large inflow of refugees, as Syrians demonstrate a willingness to brave an area that has been mined and military forces willing to shoot unarmed civilians. Turkey is to open a new refugee camp near the southern town of Kilis next month to host a further 10,000 Syrians. Another camp is being built at Ceylanpinar, near the eastern end of the border, for up to 20,000 people, officials said.
Yet that is as far as Turkey is willing to go in terms of unilateral action, analysts say. It will not act alone to impose a buffer zone in Syria because, the analysts said, Russia and Iran are backing Syria, and Turkey does not want to risk a confrontation.