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 1:54 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT