Responses to Syrian shelling highlight Turkish-Western divide on conflict

While the US and other Western nations resist being drawn into the fighting in Syria, Turkey is feeling the direct effects of bloodshed and refugees, putting pressure on Ankara to act.

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Turks hold cartoons depicting Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they protest against a possible war with Syria, in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, Oct. 4.

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Turkey has ceased its shelling of Syria in retaliation for a mortar attack that killed Turkish civilians, but the hostilities have laid bare the fact that, despite cooperation so far, the United States and other Western powers have vastly different concerns and goals than Syria's neighbors when it comes to resolving the Syrian conflict.

With a spillover of fighting into Turkish territory a possibility and the growing rebel and refugee presence in eastern Turkey already sowing some discontent among locals, Turkey feels a much greater sense of urgency to bring about a resolution. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been one of the most strident voices of criticism of the Assad regime in Syria, as well as one of the most overt backers of the rebels.

While the US and others have clearly sided with the rebels, their support has been far more careful. 

Turkey's parliamentary resolution yesterday authorizing military offensives into other countries prompted a flurry of alarm among Turks and the international community. Officials from Turkey's ruling party have been quick to issue statements reassuring Turks and the international community that the resolution was only a precaution.

"This is not a resolution that licenses war. If you want security and peace, you must be ready for a fight at all times," Huseyin Celik, a lawmaker and spokesman for the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) said, according to The Wall Street Journal. "There shouldn't be panic as if there's a war at our doorstep."

The US and United Nations have both condemned Syria's initial attack, but not Turkey's retaliation. "From our perspective, the response that Turkey made was appropriate," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday, according to WSJ. "The intent in sending a very strong message was to deter future aggression."

The UN Security Council "condemned in the strongest terms the shelling by the Syrian armed forces" – a move that required the approval of Russia, which has steadfastly rejected further action against Syria and been reticent to condemn some of its actions.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writes in a Washington Post commentary that the attack lays bare the stark differences of opinion between the US and Turkey when it comes to Syria. While the US is treading carefully due to impending presidential elections and war fatigue among Americans, Mr. Erdogan sees its limited response as a sign of "indifference," Mr. Cagaptay writes, noting that Erdogan criticized President Obama for "lacking initiative" last month.

This statement could be a harbinger. Erdogan has a penchant for treating foreign leaders as friends — and losing his temper when he thinks his friends have not stood by him. The more Washington looks the other way on Syria, the more upset Erdogan is likely to get over what he sees as Obama’s unwillingness to support his policy.

To the White House, the Syrian crisis has appeared manageable.

U.S. policy holds that a gradual soft landing could be possible in Syria. The hope is that the opposition groups will coalesce and take down the Assad regime, eliminating the need for hasty foreign intervention — an option that Washington fears could cause chaos.

Ankara, however, wants an accelerated soft landing. Particularly with this week’s strikes, Turkey feels the heat of the crisis next door — Erdogan has reason to believe that time is not on his side.

And Burak Bekdil, a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News, writes that Turkey feels it has been left to deal with Syria on its own.

Apparently, Turkey is being dragged into a bizarre coalition of the willing for regime change in Syria. It’s bizarre, because Turkey is fast heading to becoming a solo coalition of the willing, with several pats on the shoulder from its Western and Sunni allies. We thought that Turkey would become a regional power, not a regional hit man. 

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