Debate continues in Turkey over Syria, regional standing

Turkey is not sending top officials to this week’s Non-Aligned Movement summit conference in Tehran, where Syria’s conflict is likely to be a main topic. The lower level of Turkish participation comes as Egypt is asserting a larger regional role regarding Syria, Turkish analysts say.

Not attended by the West, the conference led by Iran is likely to have little impact on resolving the Syria crisis. Iran is attempting to float its own peace plan that the West says has little credibility.

Iran has staunchly backed Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad throughout the 18-month long uprising and has accused the West and Sunni Muslim Gulf countries of fueling the conflict by arming and financing the rebels.

Turkey, meanwhile is focusing its diplomatic efforts on the world stage.

The U.N. Security Council is to hold a high-level meeting Thursday on the humanitarian situation in Syria. The foreign ministers of Turkey and Jordan, two of the countries hosting a large portion of Syria’s 200,000 refugees, will address the 15-nation council on the humanitarian crisis they are facing.

But in Turkey, analysts say Ankara is missing a big chance to foster its regional standing at the Tehran summit.

“When the crisis started, Turkey was in the ideal position in relation to its connection with the regime in Damascus, but also with its ability to talk with regimes in the Middle East,” said analyst Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based international-relations research institute, Edam. “However, as Turkey being one of the countries closely aligned with the Syrian opposition, it lost its ability to reach out. So I think today, what we are seeing is Egypt trying to fulfill that role.”

Political observers in Turkey say Egypt, with its new administration, is well placed to have a regional impact on the Syria issue.

The main opposition Syrian National Council was founded and is based in Istanbul, but has been holding meetings in Cairo. Analysts say that’s a sign of shifting diplomatic winds.

Diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz, of the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, says Turkey’s importance to the opposition is likely to be usurped by Egypt.

“In the end of the day, in the final analysis, if there is an Arab country leading the way out, I am sure people in region will always prefer this, to a country not considered Arab. Number one, we must not forget Cairo, in a way, is the unspoken capital of the Arab world, given that the Arab League is based there,” said Idiz.

Turkey has a 900-kilometer border with Syria, though, and Ankara is extending support not only to the Syrian political opposition, but also to its military wing. For those reasons, said political columnist Akif Emre of the Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, Turkey will remain important to the opposition.

“Turkey has key role, Syrian opposition army – Free Syrian Army, they have camps in Turkey,” said Emre. “Officially Turkey rejects any arming of the [opposition] army, but everybody knows at least Turkey gives logistic support for the oppositions.”

Ulgen said he expects the Syrian opposition to take a balanced approach between Turkey and Egypt, but he warns Ankara’s influence is diminishing.

“From the standpoint from the Syrian National Council, it is certainly intelligent strategy to try [to] get support of both Egypt and Turkey,” said Ulgen. “So I do not think from their perspective it is an exclusive choice. But that certainly does not change the fact that increasingly Egypt is acquiring the role that Turkey wanted to play.”

Turkey’s government is facing growing criticism at home, even from its supporters, due to its handling of the Syrian crisis and its robust support for the opposition. Analysts say that if Cairo’s influence on the Syrian conflict grows at the expense of Ankara, it likely will add to that criticism.

(Photo:  Cristina Nichitus)