A recent opinion poll in Turkey found that only 18 percent of Turks back their government’s support for the Syrian opposition. The poll was the latest in the last few months showing a collapse in public support and putting pressure on the government to address its Syria policy.
Turkish officials stand behind their Syria policy, and the problems have posed little threat to the moderately Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But as opinion polls indicate declining domestic support, Turkish leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to manage the fallout after turning against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last year.
Diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz of the Turkish newspaper Milliyet says the collapse in support comes from a growing realization of a flawed government policy based on the expectation that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would quickly fall.
“Yes I do think that we will probably see a change in policy in the next months, especially if Assad or his regime appear to be hanging on,” he says. “It will manifest itself with more ecumenical initiatives, less appearing to take sides.”
Turkey’s long border with Syria made the conflict a difficult situation for the Turks since the beginning. Turkish media and opposition politicians have painted the situation as a policy failure. Also swaying public opinion is Erdogan’s failure to allow the United Nations to help Turkey with the swelling refugee population, and the friction caused by allowing Sunni rebels and refugees to concentrate in the largely Alawite province of Hatay. The Alawites are a Shi’ite sect that dominates the Syrian regime, while the populations of Syria and Turkey are majority Sunni.
Suat Kiniklioglu, a former member of parliament’s foreign affairs committee for the ruling AK party, acknowledges such criticism has gained traction in Turkish public opinion.
“Yes we are aware of that and that’s a problem we have to grapple with,” he says. “For us, the number one priority right now is for the Assad regime to go and a new Syria to be formed and I think in the long run Turkey’s position will be better appreciated.”
But analysts speculate the main factor behind the growing public discontent over Turkey’s Syria policy involves the deadly battles in the southeast between security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a separatist insurgency for 28 years.
Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based research institute EDAM says Turkish officials are accusing Syria of arming the guerrillas and empowering a PKK offshoot along the Syria-Turkey border.
“The government is aware that its positioning is costing in terms of popularity because now many Turks associate the rise of PKK terrorism with the government’s assertive policy on Syria,” says Ulgen. “But I think the government invested heavily in its current position, supporting both the civilian and the military arm of the Syrian opposition. So in a way Turkey’s only way forward is to continue with this policy and try to precipitate regime change in Syria.”
On Tuesday, the PKK killed at least seven Turkish soldiers and wounded more than 50 in an ambush in Turkey’s southeast. In the past few days, 12 other police and soldiers have died in similar attacks. The last 12 months have been the bloodiest since the peak of the conflict in the 1990s.
But political columnist Asli Aydintasbas of the Turkish newspaper Milliyetargues Ankara needs to change its domestic policy rather than its Syria policy.
“Turkey has to be nervous about any Kurds anywhere as long as they refuse to deal with their Kurdish issue,” she says. “Turkey has to make peace with its own Kurds in order to be able to play a significant role in Syria, Iraq, in this region.”
Prime Minister Erdogan has promised a firm military response until the PKK lays down its arms, claiming more than 500 rebels had been killed in the past month. However, political observers here warn that with every successful PKK attack, public discontent over Ankara’s Syria policy may grow.