Anxious Turks suspect US plot is behind Syria's implosion
Locals in eastern Turkey, bearing the brunt of the fallout from Turkey's involvement in Syria, believe Ankara is merely a pawn in US plans to foment conflict in the region.
In an empty coffee house in Antakya, local tradesman Ahmet Sari's face crumples in anger as he speaks about Syria.Skip to next paragraph
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“What's happening in Syria is all part of America's great project to reshape the borders of the Middle East. America and its allies don't care about bringing democracy to the Syrian people. Look at what happened to Iraq!” he fumes. “The imperialist countries are only after oil and mineral resources.”
Nineteen months into Syria's conflict, resentment of Ankara and anti-US sentiment simmer in Antakya, which lies just over the border with Syria. The province is grappling with an ailing trade and tourism sector and an influx of refugees and rebel fighters. Locals blame the Turkish government for dragging them into the conflict by backing the Syrian opposition and aligning Turkey with the opposition's Western allies.
The current administration's "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy, which stood strong for several years, now rings hollow as Turkey's diplomatic ties with Syria and its ally Iran sour due to Ankara's support for the rebels. And many say that all of these problems can be traced back to the US, who they are convinced got involved with, and perhaps even fomented, the Syrian unrest to loosen up regional powers' grip on oil, enlisting Turkey as a pawn in the process. It had little to do with support for democracy, they believe.
Stirring up the 'beehive'
The beliefs stem in part from a bold Bush administration political proposal that has faded into obscurity in the West, but remains lodged in the minds of many here. Known as the Greater Middle East Initiative, it was formally introduced by then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006 at a conference in Tel Aviv. Her references to "the birth pangs of a New Middle East" and the unveiling there of a new map of the region featuring a "Free Kurdistan" are still remembered with resentment.
Even with a new administration in the White House that has sought to distance itself from the previous administration's Middle East policies, many in the region are suspicious of US motives and don't believe that the various uprisings began as indigenous, people-driven movements, independent of any US involvement.
Refik Eryilmaz, a Turkish parliamentarian from Antakya with the opposition Republican People's Party, says that Western superpowers are trying to incite a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites so that countries in the region fragment along ethno-religious lines, becoming weaker in the process.
Syria is predominantly Sunni, but President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite, a Shiite offshoot, as is most of his government.
"The access to oil will be made easier when people in these regions are divided and fighting amongst themselves. Both the US and Israel want to weaken Iran and strengthen their own position in the Middle East. But to do this, first they must weaken Syria and replace the current government with someone who supports them instead of Iran," says Mr. Eryilmaz.
This suspicion – that outside intervention is stirring up sectarian strife in Syria – is a view shared by many in Antakya, Turkey's most ethno-religiously diverse province.
Although Nihat Yenmis, president of the Alevi Cultural Foundation (AKAD) in Iskenderun, is convinced that sectarian violence will not seep into Turkey, he laments the plight of Syrian civilians, caught up in the cross-fire of a conflict that he interprets as planned and stoked by outside intervention.