Despite recent Syrian provocations, including the downing of a reconnaissance jet in June and this month’s shelling of a Turkish border town, Ankara is reluctant to intervene in Syria’s civil war for fear of uniting the Kurdish opposition.
Turkey responded to the Syrian mortar attack on one of its villages near the border, which Syria insisted was accidental, with minor skirmishes in the region but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cautioned that he was not interested in “something like starting a war.”
The Turkish government is supporting the largely Sunni uprising against the Ba’athist regime of President Bashar al-Assad and anxious to position itself as the champion of the revolutionary cause in the Middle East since the “Arab Spring” has repudiated its previous policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Ruled by an Islamist party but steeped in a secular tradition, Turkey likes to think of itself as a role model for the political movements that have come to power in Egypt and Tunisia.
But military intervention to hasten the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, which is the only opposition movement that is organized enough to take power if Assad falls, carries enormous political risks for the Turks.
Policymakers in Ankara may fear that northern Syria, which appears largely under rebel control, becomes a safe haven for Kurdish insurgents from where to stage raids into southern Turkey but if they directly involve themselves in the conflict, Turkey not only risks losing the trust of the Syrian opposition; Asia Times Online‘s Spengler columnist, David P. Goldman, points out that intervention would likely unite the different Kurdish factions against it.
Syria’s two million Kurds are divided among seventeen political parties. Only a minority is aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the main guerrilla group in Turkey which NATO countries label a terrorist organization.
Turkey cannot solve its Kurdish problem today because the Kurds know that time is on their side: with a fertility three times that of ethnic Turks, Anatolian Kurds will comprise half the country’s military age population a generation from now.
Turkey’s foreign policy wouldn’t be served by an intervention either. It has cultivated close relations with Iraq’s Kurds to put pressure on the Shiite government in Baghdad which is increasingly dependent on neighboring Iran, the nemesis of the Sunni powers in the region. Military action against the Kurds in Syria would upset their counterparts in Iraq, thus jeopardizing Turkey’s agenda in the country as well as its relations with Iran which could both interpret Turkish behavior as a push to reclaim Ottoman “hegemony,” as Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki put it in April of this year.