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Will Istanbul’s Protests Shift Turkey’s Syria Stance?

ISTANBUL / As police fired tear gas and pointed pressurized water hoses at protesters marching towards Taksim Square in weekend anti-government protests, Syria’s regime was busy spinning Turkey’s predicament in its favor.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

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“The Foreign and Expatriates Ministry advises the Syrian citizens against traveling to Turkey during this period for fear for their safety, due to the security conditions in some Turkish cities that have deteriorated over the past days and the violence practiced by [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s government against peaceful protesters,” it said in a statement Sunday. The previous day, Information Minister Omran al-Soubi suggested Erdogan, the highly conservative target of protesters’ frustrations, should step down.

“Domestic instability in Turkey is partly because of [Turkey’s] intervention inside of Syria. A lot of people in Turkey are angry that the Turkish government is allowing Syrians to use the Turkish border to take in weapons and supplies,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, a Syria analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. “They think it’s causing attacks against Turkey [like] last month’s bombings in Reyhanli.”

O’Bagy traveled from Turkey into Syria last week, accompanying U.S. Senator John McCain.

The week’s violent protests, scenes of which were gleefully plastered across Syrian state media, could be a boon for Assad, by dissuading Erdogan from intervening any further in the Syrian conflict. The Turkish leader has opened the Southern border to a flood of Syrian civilians, set up refugee camps for those fleeing, and last week allowed the opposition National Coalition to gather in Istanbul – all controversial moves at home.

“Assad can look back and point his finger and say, ‘Look, even your own people think that you shouldn’t be involved and should stay out of it. Stop hosting the opposition and providing the support that you have, and your people agree with me’,” O’Bagy said. “So it boosts the line that the Syrian government has taken for quite some time now. A lot of people have criticized Erdogan, saying [he’s] been intervening in ways that has caused a lot of domestic instability without really aiding the opposition.”

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Didem Akyel Collinsworth, a Turkey analyst at the International Crisis Group, said that even if the protests have little to do with foreign policy, the domestic unrest might force Erdogan to pivot away from Syria.

“The government, and Prime Minister Erdogan particularly, will be distracted by these domestic developments. This ‘distraction’ can be an opportunity to switch to a more nuanced policy,” she said.

Collinsworth noted that Istanbul had already been toning down its rhetoric towards Damascus and steering towards a lighter policy approach.

“Turkey was very aggressive in its rhetoric up [against Syria] until late last year. I think this was partly because they were expecting that after the elections President Obama was going to come in stronger on the side of some sort of military action. But that did not happen,” she said.

O’Bagy felt tension as smaller scale protests broke out along the Syrian border in Antakya.

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“It’s incredible how high the tension is. Turks are angry at their government for allowing the Syrians to operate freely [in the south], for allowing open movement across the border. It has generated more anger at the Turkish government than at the Syrians themselves.”

Soli Ozel, a professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University and columnist for the newspaper Haberturk, says that Erdogan’s policy towards Syria had already taken a hit long before the protests began.

“The impact on Erdogan’s Syria policy already took place when he visited Washington and was compelled to align his policy with that of the Americans,” Ozel said, referring to a meeting with Obama last month. He said Erdogan had hoped to convince Obama that upcoming peace talks in Geneva were just “an attempt at procrastination” by the Assad regime, and that a no-fly zone should be established and more weapons given to the rebels – and Erdogan came back empty-handed.

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