Syria’s Bashar al-Assad blames neighboring Turkey in part for the violence in his country.
In an interview with the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, the Syrian president accused Ankara of supporting Syria’s rebels. He accused Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of pursuing a sectarian agenda in the Middle East in urging Assad’s government to reform while ignoring the democratic deficits in allied Arab Gulf states.
Turkey, a secular Sunni state, has sided with the largely Sunni opposition in Assad’s country. The president, a Shia Alawite, continues to draw support from religious minorities and the urban middle classes in Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s two largest cities and home to a quarter of its population.
“With his desire from the beginning to interfere in our internal affairs, unfortunately, in the subsequent period he has made Turkey a party to all the bloody acts in Syria,” said Assad of his Turkish counterpart. “Turkey has given all kinds of logistical support to the terrorists killing our people.”
Assad did express regret for the downing of a Turkish F-4 fighter jet by Syrian air defenses last month which killed two Turkish pilots. Syria claims that the plane was in its air space when it was shot down. Turkey disputes that.
The incident highlighted the extent to which Syrian-Turkish relations have soured since the beginning of Syria’s uprising early last year. In light of his “zero problems with neighbors” policy, Erdoğan once fostered close ties with the Ba’athist regime but the “Arab Spring” has changed the calculations in Ankara.
Turkey has tried to position itself as a champion of the Arab revolutionary cause even if it was quite willing to work with the authoritarian leadership in Egypt and Syria before unrest broke out in these countries in 2011.
An opposition Syrian National Council has been allowed to headquarter in Istanbul while Turkey refuses to close its southern border with Syria to refugees.
Where the “zero problems with neighbors” policy failed to provide any meaningful leverage for Turkey in Damascus, it pursues a more populist strategy today that aims to expand Turkish influence and prestige across the region.
With its novel blend of moderate Islamism and secular administration, uniquely positioned between the Muslim world and Europe, Turkey could appeal to both the educated, cosmopolitan youngsters who took to the streets of Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak as well as the Islamists who have since claimed the mantle of Egypt’s revolution.
In the short term, its most useful legacy is likely to be one of military guardianship as the generals in Egypt refuse to relinquish power to the Muslim Brotherhood altogether. Turkey has seen four army coups in its republican history. Each time, the military said to act to protect the country’s secular tradition and laws.
Whether Syria’s army follows the “Turkish model” or the Muslim Brotherhood there comes to power if Assad is deposed makes little difference to Turkish interests. Both are likely to align with Ankara and the Arab monarchies in the Gulf at Tehran’s expense. Assad is currently Iran’s only Arab ally.