With relations between Ankara and Damascus already strained, recent military escalation in the Syria conflict is also threatening to deepen the long existing rifts that run between Turkey's political sphere and society as a whole. By Fatma Kayabal in Istanbul
Turkish public opinion is highly polarized over several vital issues such as the Kurdish question, secularism, the rights of religious sects and now another existential matter: the situation in Syria and its implications for Turkey.
This fault line was clearly revealed on 4 October, when after heated debates parliament passed a government motion for a one-year mandate authorizing the military to deploy ground troops for cross-border operations into "foreign countries" – including Syria.
The motion was supported by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), and one opposition party – the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). But there were a total of 129 naysayers from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).
Voting took place the day after five people, three of them children, were killed when mortar shells fired from Syria hit the town of Akçakale in Şanlıurfa province close to the border.
On the same day of the motion, anti-war demonstrations took place in Ankara and Istanbul, protesting parliament's decision. As well as police brutality on the streets, demonstrators also faced criticism in the media by journalists widely known to have liberal views, such as Yıldıray Oğur of the Taraf Daily. In his article of 7 October, Oğur wrote that the situation in Syria and the Turkish reaction to it is quite different to being against the US invasion of Iraq. He underlined that the regime in Syria is killing its own people en masse, and argued that staying out of the conflict while people are dying would be inhumane.
"Some are arguing that Syrian President Bashar Assad must go, but without any foreign interference. This way of thinking is the real reason why yet more and more Syrians are dying," he wrote.
The nationalist CHP, on the other hand, is critical of the government's Syria policy on several grounds, in particular because of its links with military components of the Syrian opposition. In September, a CHP delegation was refused permission to visit one of the refugee camps near Hatay, Apaydın, hosting defected Syrian soldiers. The CHP had argued that the camp was the site of military training facilities. CHP deputy Faruk Loğoğlu says this policy of non-cooperation and non-transparency by Turkey's AKP administration is only intensifying the conflict.
The CHP also claims that the government's Syria policy is serving the interests of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK, listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union, and the United States among others. These views are also shared by the MHP.
"The inflow of refugees from Syria to Turkey has brought much instability," MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli said recently. "The refugees quite possibly include many spies from Syria and other nations. The events in Syria having a negative impact on Turkey's unity," he said, adding that the PKK is benefiting from the turmoil in Syria.
Both the CHP and MHP suggest that in retaliation for the Turkish government's policy on Syria, the Damascus regime is arming the PKK and empowering a PKK offshoot along the Syria-Turkey border.
Recent public opinion polls also show waning public support in Turkey for the government's policy on Syria – for the same reasons. One survey conducted by Metropoll showed only 28 percent of respondents believe that the government is handling the Syrian crisis effectively. Among those respondents who voted for the AKP at the last election in 2011, this figure was still just 39 percent.
The Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) is also critical of the government's Syria policy, but on different grounds. BDP co-Chair Gülten Kışanak recently described AKP policy on Syria as a new political game that is primarily a US request, as well as being an excuse to attack Syrian Kurds in the north of the country.
"Turkey is afraid of Syrian Kurds gaining power in the north, and recent moves prove Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu are trying to suppress Syrian Kurds to revive the Ottoman Empire," she told BDP members at a party meeting in İstanbul two days after parliament's decision.
Foreign Minister Davutoğlu responded to these and other criticisms on a television programme aired by the state-owned Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) network, saying that "the Syrian president, condemned by the entire world, probably follows comments made by our opposition to boost morale."
Erdoğan displayed a similar attitude, and often hints that CHP criticism of the AKP is motivated by the religious affiliation of party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is an Alevi. Although both the Turkish Alevis and Syrian Alawites are considered to be close to Shia Islam, the groups represent quite different strains of the Muslim faith.
Turkish Alevis traditionally support the CHP and are critical of AKP policies on education and secularism. The weekend after the cross-border operations motion was passed in parliament, thousands of Turkish Alevis took to the streets in protest – not only to demand their rights, but also against the government's Syria policy.
Such a situation threatens to exacerbate rifts that already exist in Turkey. According to prominent journalist Cengiz this is the main problem with the Turkish government's Syrian policy.
"Where the Turkish government's Syria policy goes wrong is not that it is against the regime, but that it cannot solve its important internal problems such as the Kurdish question and the Alevi question," Çandar wrote. Erdoğan is doing the right thing in one respect, but hinting at the Alevi roots of Kılıçdaroğlu gives the impression that he is following a Sunni sectarian policy, he admonished.
Çandar continued: "By doing this he is also putting distance between himself and the main opposition party – whose cooperation is vital in the solution of the Kurdish problem – as well as polarizing Turkey."
© Qantara.de 2012
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de