In Syria: Why is Turkey reluctant to take the lead?

Turks hope that peace between the two countries can be restored. But Syrian refugees hope Turkey will take a more aggressive stance. 

REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses the members of his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at his party headquarters in Ankara.

One might have thought that the downing of one of its aircraft by Syrian fighter jets would have been enough to provoke military action by Turkey.

And yet, Ankara, while angry, has remained remarkably non-confrontational following the latest incident. Indeed, while Turks have allowed arms to transit through their country to support members of the Free Syrian Army, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ruled out the possibility of war.

In that, he is reflecting the general feeling of most Turks, who are extremely wary of the prospect of conflict with their southern neighbor.

Older people remember the 1974 conflict with Greece over Cyprus and shudder; the younger generation is in shock at the prospect of conflict.

“We were such close friends (with Syria) — what happened all of a sudden?” asked Asife Ulu, a 26-year-old business manager in Istanbul.

Arzu Efeoglu, a 23-year-old university student in the same city, said, “I don’t see how a war would help the Turks. It would cost many lives. Syria is not our problem.

Turkey is not a fully mature democracy. We still have lots of problems to fix here before fighting for democracy elsewhere.” Varol, a 51-year-old retired businessman, hopes that normal relations with Damascus can be restored.

“We need to sit down at the table with the Syrian government in the presence of a mediator and sort out our differences,” he said.

According to Abdulhamit Bilici, a senior journalist and columnist with the Zaman newspaper, such responses are typical and reflect a failure to grasp the scale of the crisis unfolding in Syria.

“It is very difficult to persuade Turks in favor of war with Syria. They can’t understand how we’ve become enemies after enjoying very good relations over the last few years,” he said.

Turkey has the second largest military force in NATO after the United States. That, and its proximity to Syria, leads many to believe that Turkey would be expected to spearhead any military intervention.

“America is pushing Turkey to fight with Syria, which the West won’t do itself because of elections and the economy. They worry about their losses, while ours would come cheaper for them,” Tayfun Coskun, a 33-year old photographer, said.

The mood of extreme caution is not confined to the public — many analysts are resolutely opposed to military engagement.

For example, Abdullah Bozkurt, a prominent analyst, says, “Turkey may have suffered a blow to its prestige as Assad is still hanging onto power after a 15-month-long uprising, leaving Turks with a sense of defeat and humiliation. But I think we can live with that, if it means saving the lives of Turkish soldiers.” A few, however, take a more hawkish view.

Vehbi Bisan, a professor at Istanbul University, said many people, while against the idea of a war, would like their country to stand up for itself, after the loss of face caused by the plane downing.

“Turks see their country as weak, which contradicts their sense of strength. Any further provocation by Syriawill see a strong reaction from the public as well as from the military,” he said.

And Syrians who have fled to Turkey from their homeland are desperate for Ankara to act.

Omar Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee from Homs, says Turkey’s apparent torpor has only encouraged Damascus to take a more aggressive stance towards it.

“The lack of either a military or a diplomatic response when Assad troops attacked a refugee camp [in April 2012] emboldened Syria to shoot down the Turkish fighter jet,” he said.

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