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Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2012
Like Japan, Turkey sees itself as a bridge between two worlds — in this case, between Europe and the Middle East. Not only does geography enable Turkish leadership, but its successful combination of Islam and democracy is seen as model for the Middle East as well.
But the civil war in Syria has ruptured relations between Ankara and Damascus. Worse, however, is the prospect that the unrest in Syria will actually spill over the border into Turkey and risks destabilizing that country as well.
In Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, those ambitions have taken more concrete form. The fact that he heads an Islamist party that has challenged the traditional military-led order gives him additional credibility among fellow Muslims.
That background gave him legitimacy when he reached out to Israel, and it also provided a solid foundation for relations with Syria, one of the core elements of his foreign policy.
Turkey and Syria attempted to form a partnership, one that included, among other things, a free-trade zone among those two countries, along with Lebanon and Jordan.
Citizens could travel without visas among those four nations. Turkey attempted to use that leverage to bring Syria — and Iran, in an aborted effort to resolve the nuclear crisis — to the negotiating table to deal with long-festering regional issues.
The violence in Syria has ruptured that entente. The atrocities perpetrated against civilians prompted Mr. Erdogan to call the Syrian government "a terrorist regime."
Turkey's subsequent decision to back the Syrian rebels infuriated Syrian President Bashar Assad. Mr. Erdogan has provided safe haven in Istanbul for the Syrian civilian opposition and has played a key role in channeling funds, weapons and intelligence to the rebels. The support of Turkey, a regional government with Islamic credentials, is a key factor in legitimizing the opposition internationally.
Equally important, Turkey has provided camps for rebel fighters, and the rebels control a strip of territory along the Syria-Turkey border, where they enjoy the protection of Turkish forces. The Turkish government denies actually arming or training the rebels. Syria has retaliated by taking the fight to Turkey.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (known as the PKK) has been fighting for autonomy from Ankara for 28 years. It has been a bloody struggle; it is estimated that more than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Reportedly, Mr. Assad's government is encouraging the PKK and its Syrian branch, the PYD, to up its struggle against Istanbul. Turkey charges Syria with arming the PKK, an accusation that Damascus denies.
The PYD took control of several towns near the Turkish border after the Syrian Army voluntarily withdrew and is said to be giving the Kurdish groups free rein.
Not surprisingly, there has been a surge in PKK attacks against Turkish forces. There have been several bombings, one of which killed 10 civilians; another claimed the lives of a dozen soldiers. Turkey has already deployed military force to strike PKK havens in southeastern Turkey and in enclaves in northern Iraq. A 2,000-plus-strong ground force was deployed with F-16 warplanes in a major operation.
The remaining question is whether Turkish forces might cross the border into Syria, which could spark a wider regional confrontation.
Another type of border crossing is causing Turkey even more trouble: a flood of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. It is reckoned that some 235,000 people have fled across borders to Turkey and three other countries since fighting broke out in March 2011. Thus far, Turkey has offered refuge to more than 80,000 of them. They are lodged in nine camps; five more are being built.
The Ankara government says it cannot take more than 100,000 refugees without international help; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has warned that the number of refugees in Turkey could reach 200,000 if the conflict intensifies. Many of the refugees are unaccompanied children. Some are ill and doctors and medicine are in short supply.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent estimates that there are about 1.5 million Syrians that are "internally displaced" — forced from their homes. It is reckoned that about 2.5 million people in Syria — about 12 percent of the population — need some form of assistance. The U.N. fears that number could increase to 4 million.
Turkey has suggested that the international community create a "safe zone" within Syria that would shelter many of the refugees fleeing the violence.
The Syrian government criticized the suggestion — no doubt concerned that such an enclave could become a haven for the rebels as well as the refugees — but so too did international refugee officials who know from bitter experience that safety in those areas is difficult to ensure.
The refugees need help, as does Turkey. The Ankara government may have been ambitious and overextended itself, but providing shelter for innocents fleeing atrocities perpetrated by the Syrian government is a good deed.
Turkey should not be punished for doing the right thing.