Skip to main content

Is Turkey moving toward 'hard power' over Syria?

By Mustafa Akyol, Special to CNN
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Thu June 28, 2012
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses lawmakers at parliament in Ankara on Tuesday.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses lawmakers at parliament in Ankara on Tuesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mustafa Akyol: Syria downing of Turkish plane has brought countries' tensions to new level
  • He says relations had evolved to friendly until Arab Spring; Syria aggression opened new divide
  • He says Turkey's Erdogan had tried to ease Syria to peace, but now it's in military posture
  • Akyol: Turkey used "soft power" to gain regional strength. Must it use "hard power' to keep it?

Editor's note: Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish journalist and the author of "Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty." (WW Norton, 2011)

Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) -- The downing of a Turkish jet over the Mediterranean last Friday by a Syrian missile took Turkish-Syrian tensions to a new level. Though the Turkish government did not declare war as some expected, and others feared, it did declare Syria a "clear and present danger" and raised its rules of engagement to an alert level.

How we came to this point is an interesting story. The 550-mile long border with Syria, Turkey's longest, has often been tense. During the Cold War, Syria was a Soviet ally, Turkey was a NATO member (as it still is) and the border was heavily mined. Moreover, Hafez Assad, the father and predecessor of Syria's current dictator, Bashar al-Assad, supported and hosted the PKK, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, which has led a guerrilla war against Turkey since the early '80s. (PKK is defined by Turkey and the United States as a terrorist group.) Turkey had come close to waging a war against Syria in 1999 because of this PKK connection.

Turkey moves forces to Syrian border amid tensions, official says

Mustafa Akyol
Mustafa Akyol

However, the relations surprisingly changed for the better in the first decade of the new century. Bashar al-Assad, who replaced his father in 2000, seemed to promise a more open and friendly Syria. In Turkey, the Justice and Development Party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which came to power in 2002, initiated a foreign policy of "zero problems with neighbors." This led to a fruitful Turkish-Syrian rapprochment: Erdogan and Assad became friends, trade between the two countries was boosted, and borders were opened for visa-free travel. Just two years ago, the two countries looked like the core states of a would-be Middle Eastern Union modeled after the EU.

But this honeymoon came to an abrupt end with the Arab Spring. The Erdogan government, whose claims include democratizing Turkey by saving it from the tutelage of the country's overbearing military, intuitively sympathized with and announced support for this democratic wave in the region. Yet while this proved to be a winning game in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Syria turned out to be a tougher case.

NATO, Turkey slam Syria over downed jet
Tough talk from NATO, but no action
Unsettled neighbors
al-Assad: Syria 'in a state of real war'

Throughout the initial months of the demonstrations in Syria, which began in March 2011, the Turkish government hoped and tried to persuade al-Assad's regime to allow a peaceful transition to democracy. This hope was gradually replaced by frustration, however, and Erdogan soon began to condemn the "barbarism" and "savagery" of the Syrian regime. The trouble for him, as it usually is, was also personal: As he said in the Turkish Parliament on June 21, Assad had promised him change and reform but proved to be a liar instead.

Consequently, Turkey rapidly emerged as one of the boldest supporters of the Syrian opposition, and the Syrian National Council, formed as the dissidents' umbrella group, found a base in Turkey. Meanwhile, at least 15,000 refugees from Syria, both dissidents and their families, were given shelter on the Turkish side of the Syrian border.

Moreover, the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group formed by the Syrian soldiers who deserted to the opposition's side, not only operated from Turkey but, according to some reports, were helped with arms and other supplies as well. The Syrian response was to add Turkey to its own version of the axis of evil -- the United States, NATO, Saudi Arabia and in fact much of the rest of the world -- in its official propaganda.

Inside Turkey, this engagement in the Syrian crisis has supporters and critics. The supporters are mostly Sunni conservatives who strongly identify with the Syrian opposition, which include the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. (The massacre of thousands of Sunnis in Hama in 1982 by Hafez Assad had been a tragic memory in the minds of these conservative Turks, who now believe that the Syrian leopard has simply not changed its spots.)

Other voices in Turkey, ranging from hardcore secularists to pro-Iranian marginal Islamists, accuse the government for being naively involved in a conflict cooked up by "Western imperialists."

The plane incident came on top of all this. The downed jet was apparently an unarmed but military aircraft which, according to the Turkish government, was on a peaceful mission to test the NATO radar system based in eastern Turkey. Syrians said the plane violated Syrian airspace and was shot within it.

The Turkish government said the plane violated the Syrian airspace "mistakenly and very briefly" but was hit by a Syrian missile despite immediately having reverted to international airspace. The plane's two pilots, who apparently fell to the sea, are missing.

The Turkish reaction to the incident was outlined by Erdogan in an address in the parliament that came four days after the incident. In a very strident tone against the "bloody dictator of Syria," Erdogan announced that Turkey now sees its southern neighbor as a "clear and present danger" and will change its rules of engagement: "Any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria by posing a security risk will be regarded as a threat, and will be treated as a military target." The very same day, some Turkish tanks on the Syrian border were repositioned, implying that Ankara meant business.

Yet almost no one in Turkey seems enthusiastic for war. Many here point out that Turkey's ascendance in the past decade has been thanks to its "soft power." That mainly rested on the country's economic boom and democratic reforms, which seemed to present a synthesis of Islam, free-market capitalism and political liberalism.

Photos: In Syrian hospital, no escape from war

But should Turkey now consider putting some "hard power" on the table, without which it might become ineffective in its region? This is a question that Turks are passionately discussing these days, and the answer seems to matter a lot for the Syrians as well.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mustafa Akyol.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT