Turkey says it cannot stay indifferent to what is happening in neighbouring Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said “whatever happens in Syria is our internal affair”. Long, high level meetings during these hot summer days are obvious sign of that perception.
In Ankara, the prime minister’s office has been very busy. On Monday Erdogan met with his new Chief of Staff, four-star-general Necdet Özel, along with his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, along with Minister of Defence Ismet Yılmaz and other civil and military officials. The subject was Syria and Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s visit to Damascus on Tuesday. Turkish leaders reviewed the strategy of defending Syria in the international arena and discussed the options to stop the bloodshed in Syria, more than 1,600 people have been killed there since March.
Following the prime minister’s meeting with top officials, the US Ambassador to Ankara, Francis Ricciardione, also visited the PM’s office bringing messages from Washington which Foreign Minister Davutoglu will pass on during this visit to Damascus. Davutoglu also spoke with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the phone. Her message to Bashar al-Assad is that he should release all detained protestors, establish a new government and sent his army back to barracks.
Davutoglu has visited Damascus many times over for the last eight years and has established good contacts there, improving Turkish-Syrian relations. He is one of the key figures in developing stronger links between Ankara and Damascus. However this time he will be facing tough diplomats and it is not clear whether he will be able to convince his counterparts that this is a last chance for the Syrian regime.
Turkey has always defended Syria internationally, speaking up for the al-Assad regime against criticism. During the war in Iraq, when the Bush administration wanted to isolate the Syrian government, it was Ankara that served as a bridge between Damascus and the rest of the world. If Turkey stops helping al-Assad his regime will become much more isolated. Apart from giving legitimacy to the regime, Turkey has many other means of leverages on Syria, including growing trade relations and border security . But al-Assad’s Baathist regime is more interested in its survival, and so it seems is having difficulty making rational judgements about international politics.
Turkey, has many major concerns about Syria. The worsening situation there has resulted in a tide of people heading to the Turkish border and a humanitarian catastrophe. Ankara is also focused on the fate of the Kurdish population in the region. Turkey’s National Intelligence Service has said that 1,500 PKK members in Qandil Mountain are of Syrian origin. And that is a concern for Turkey. Turkey has said it is unethical to use force against civilians and criticised Israel for attacks on Gaza. From a strategic point of view, Syria is the keystone in the Turkish-Iranian counter balance in the region: Ankara does not want to lose that role and for this reason is trying not to alienate the al-Assad regime.
Under these circumstances this is one of the most difficult missions of Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s career. And the outcome of this visit will shape Turkey’s Syrian policy.
Bora Bayraktar, euronews, Istanbul