Syrian offensive in Jisr al-Shughur ruptures key Turkey ties

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had taken to calling his Syrian counterpart 'brother,' says he can no longer defend his ally – departing from a foreign policy of 'zero problems' with neighbors.

Selcan Hacaoglu/AP
Syrian refugee men walk in the new refugee tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border, June 12. Syrian forces launched a crackdown on the Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughur on Sunday, fueling fears that the clashes could spark a further influx of refugees toward bordering Turkey.

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Syria's offensive in the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughur over the weekend has put major cracks in the regime's relationship with Turkey, a key ally that has absorbed thousands of civilians who have fled the violence.

The offensive, which came in retribution for what Syria said was the killing of 120 soldiers and security personnel last week, signals that the regime has given up even pretending to consider reforms in response to months of antigovernment protests, The New York Times reports.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the "barbarity" of the military unit believed to be leading the crackdown, which is led by President Bashar al-Assad's brother Maher. “After all that has happened, Turkey can no longer defend Syria,” Mr. Erdogan said on TV, according to The Washington Post.

No civilians remain in Jisr al-Shughur (see map), according to a Syrian Army defector who said antigovernment forces tried to block the regime's advance until residents could flee.

Many of the 50,000 residents fled toward Turkey. About 10,000 were waiting near the border on Sunday and at least 5,000 are already being put up in camps across the border in Turkey, Reuters reports.

Turkey has been reluctant to label the Syrians fleeing across its borders as "refugees" or "asylum seekers," but Erdogan harshly condemned the "atrocity" perpetrated by Mr. Assad's regime in Jisr al-Shughur, according to Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News. The Turkish prime minister, a friend of Assad, said he had spoken to the Syrian president four or five days earlier, but commented that the Syrians "underestimate the situation" and he could not defend their actions.

A columnist for Lebanon's Daily Star writes that Syria's actions since the uprising began in the southern town of Deraa three months ago have been alarming enough to drive even Turkey, which has prided itself on its avoidance of foreign entanglements, to take action.

All was relatively well with Turkey’s foreign relations. That is until 15 school children in Daraa scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall and were jailed and tortured. Then all hell broke loose.

The “zero problem” foreign policy (save for Israel) that has served Turkey so well was suddenly undone by one huge problem, Syria: A close Arab and Muslim ally had turned its fire on its own people, repressing peaceful protests with tanks and guns. Not only didn’t the Turks like it, but they couldn’t remain quiet about it.

It was clear to everyone but the Syrian regime, apparently, that the Turkish government would never be able to simply look the other way and pretend it hadn’t noticed while remaining silent as the repression mounted and the killings intensified.

According to a column in the Hurriyet Daily News, if Turkey wants to keep its relatively new role as a power broker in the region, it faces a decision: Stand by its Syrian ally, or follow the change sweeping the region.

The political vision that is based on zero problems with dictators has completed its lifespan at this era when the Middle East is undergoing a restructuring.

Turkey will be the power directing the region’s change dynamics as long as it can adopt a long-term new vision in harmony with the international system, based on democratic values founded on rights, freedoms and equalities, and be an inspiration with its soft power.

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