Close to 100
demonstrators have died and hundreds wounded in the
clashes with the Syrian security and military forces
since the rallies began two weeks ago.
Domestic problems in Syria are of particular
sensitivity to Turkey. Although the two countries
still have open territorial issues, upheaval in one
may result in destabilizing the other. Their
800-kilometer common border provides safe passage to
political activists with mischievous intentions.
A major concern for Turkey is the Kurdish population
in Syria of 1.4 million, which, in case of collapse
of Assad's regime could collude with the estimated
15 million or more ethnic Kurds in Turkey, 7 million
Iranian Kurds, and 6 million Northern Iraqi Kurds to
claim an independent state.
In anticipation of such eventuality, Ankara and
Damascus formed in 2009 a High Level Strategic
Cooperation Council (HSCC) and held in April 2010
their first joint military exercises.
Turkey has since 1978 been in armed conflict with
the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a belligerent "independentista"
organization classified as a terrorist group by
Turkey, the European Union and the United States.
The hostilities have caused the death of at least
40,000 Turkish soldiers and gendarmes, PKK guerillas,
and civilians, while the number of wounded has
exceeded 30,000, and that of the missing is
estimated at 17,000.
A study in 1998 by Brunswick University in the US
reported that at least 3 million people had by that
time been displaced in southeastern Turkey and the
area bordering Iraq, for war operational reasons,
while 3,000 villages were totally or partially
Kurdish autonomy is a sensitive issue in public
opinion in Turkey, Iran and Syria alike, where
territorial integrity has ranked at the top of these
countries' priorities since their respective
independence from Western rule.
The current regimes in Tehran and Damascus are
intransigent on Kurdish freedoms, while Erdogan's
government, in power since 2002, has begun a
dialogue process with the Turkish ethnic Kurds to
enable cultural autonomy,www.ekurd.netwhich,
after this year's national elections, might evolve
into devolution of some governance powers to the
local administrations. The main opposition,
nationalist parties and the military are, however,
implacable in their hostility to such perspective.
The Turkish nervousness about the Syrian domestic
situation is also influenced by economic and
geopolitical concerns. After a long period of cold
neighborhood relations, with occasional threats of
armed confrontation, Assad and Erdogan have crossed
the fence to develop a cosy relationship, building
on the settlement in 1998 of old political disputes.
On the strategic plane, both countries see
cooperation as being instrumental to maintain the
geopolitical status quo of Iraq's territorial
integrity, frustrate pan-Kurdish aspirations, and to
keep Israel's and Iran's testosterone on check.
The Turkish premier, speaking on Monday to
journalists, confirmed he had urged the Syrian
president over the weekend to adopt a conciliatory
spirit with his people.
"We advised Mr Assad that responding to the people's
years-old demands positively, with a reformist
approach, would help Syria overcome the problems
more easily," said Erdogan. "I did not get a 'no'
answer," he commented, adding that he expected
reforms to be announced by Damascus this week.
Syria has a long record of iron-fist governance
style, aimed at securing the survival of the ruling
Ba'ath party. Hafez al-Assad, father of the current
president and leader of the coup which installed it
in power in 1963, immediately imposed an emergency
law, which suspended practically all civil liberties
and is still in force today.
The Ba'ath party, dominated by Allawis, a tolerant
religious Shi'ite Muslim denomination, has been at
odds with the Sunni movement in Syria. Hafez al-Assad
in 1982 violently crushed a Sunni Islamist
Brotherhood revolt, killing 20,000 rebels. Tolerance
and appetite for power did, obviously, not coexist.
Amnesty International has repeatedly ranked Syria as
the country with the most repressive laws in the
Middle East. In an attempt to calm the spirits,
Bashar al-Assad offered last week to amend the
emergency law and allow for new parties to be
formed. The gesture was turned down by the
demonstrators, who insist on full democratization of
Turkish business executives and political observers
have been recommending that Erdogan include in his
prescription to al-Assad to also work on reducing
corruption, clientelism and cronyism, which are
endemic in the Syrian economy and sources of poverty
for the population. They hamper foreign direct
investment from Turkey to Syria.
But Turkey - a majority Sunni state with religious
minorities that were "tamed" by the military in the
20th century - feels uncomfortable giving lessons to
its neighbor, an increasingly important trading
With ongoing domestic unrest next door, but also in
Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, and, to a lesser degree,
Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco, Ankara's Middle
Eastern and Northern African ambitious plans are
poised to return to the drawing board.
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