Sun, 15 Dec 2019

Turkey Faces Growing Regional Tensions Over Syria

Voice of America
13 Nov 2019, 05:35 GMT+10

ISTANBUL - Turkey's October military intervention into Syria is increasingly straining relations with its regional allies and neighbors, but the country is pushing back against mounting criticism of its Syrian incursion.

In a recent editorial headlined "A threat against the Turkey-Qatar alliance," the Daily Sabah, which has close ties to the Turkish government, condemned coverage of Turkey's Syrian military operation by Qatari-owned news broadcaster Al-Jazeera English. The editorial called for the firing of journalists, warning of long-term consequences to Turkish-Qatar relations.

"Although the two countries see eye to eye on many issues, any sustainable partnership must be firmly rooted in mutual interests. Without reciprocity, any relationship is at risk of falling apart," read last week's editorial.

The Turkish military operation is on pause after agreements were brokered by Washington and Moscow with Ankara.

With Turkish relations strained with Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt, Qatar is one of Ankara's few remaining regional allies.

"Turkish-Qatar relations are built on good foundations," said Mithat Rende, the former Turkish ambassador to Qatar. "But this [Sabah editorial] is probably a warning from the [Turkish] presidency, 'You should behave. You should show respect.'"

Ankara is strongly backing Qatar in an ongoing regional embargo led by Saudi Arabia against the emirate. Last year, Turkey deployed troops to Qatar, a move widely seen to prevent any Saudi military action.

Rende says Ankara's anger with Qatar is more deep-seated than Al-Jazeera broadcasting.

"The present Qatari criticism is also probably because of the Arab League heavily criticizing the Turkish intervention, which was a very big disappointment for Ankara," said Rende. "The Arab League, when they get together, the No. 1 sentiment is Arab nationalism. They do this with border issues and territory issues."

Turkey is a former imperial power in the region, whose Ottoman empire ruled much of the Arab world. That bitter historical legacy, analysts say, continues to color Arab perception of Turkish actions, particularly military ones in the region.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed criticism by the Arab League.

The "Arab League is holding meetings against Turkey," Erdogan said. "One has to ask the members of the Arab League why they do not support the refugees in Turkey, who are mostly Arabs."

Turkey currently hosts over 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Along with securing Turkey's border, Erdogan is seeking to create a so-called "safe zone" large enough and secure enough to return up to 2 million Syrians currently living in Turkey to Syria.

Arab concerns over Ankara's military presence in Syria are likely to heighten with Erdogan indicating a long-term military presence.

"We won't quit before the last terrorist leaves the region," Erdogan told a group of journalists Nov. 8. "This is one dimension of the issue. Secondly, we will not quit before other countries leave. We are in favor of Syria's unity and solidarity. We never want it disintegrated."

Such comments will also likely cause unease in Tehran. Iran insists that only foreign powers invited by the Damascus government should be present in Syria.

"The imperative now is to end the [Turkish] incursion into Syria," tweeted Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Erdogan reacted angrily to the Iranian comments.

"Some of the statements about the operation have caused serious sadness to me," Erdogan said last month. "Not [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani himself, but some of his close friends have issued oppositional statements. Mr. Rouhani should have prevented these statements."

Erdogan also pointed out that in the past Ankara helped Iran cope with sanctions imposed by the international community over its nuclear energy program.

Analysts suggest that Erdogan's comment is a thinly veiled warning to Tehran, given that Iran is again facing powerful trade sanctions.

But with Ankara giving little sign of any early Syrian withdrawal, and even threatening new military operations, regional diplomatic pressure is only likely to grow.

"The issue is how Moscow, Tehran, and [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad try to persuade the further accession of Turkish troops inside Syria," said International relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "At the end of the day, this is Syrian territory. Turkey no doubt has undertaken a rightful operation for security reasons, but the limits of the security concern will be defined by Assad, Tehran and Moscow."

Erdogan insists he is ready to face down regional pressure and criticism to achieve his ultimate goals in Syria.

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