BEIRUT — Turkey on Thursday signaled a diplomatic shift to further distance itself from longtime ally Syria, welcoming defecting Syrian officers and announcing plans to deliver relief assistance to beleaguered pro-democracy protesters across Syria’s border.
The shift against Damascus, where President Bashar Assad has undertaken a bloody crackdown against peaceful demonstrators, comes after months of waffling and wavering over its approach toward uprisings that have shaken or brought down autocratic longtime leaders across the region. Turkey endorsed the largely peaceful revolution in Egypt, for example, but pleaded for political reforms rather than the ouster of heads of state in others, especially ones where it has business interests, such as Syria or Libya.
“Like any other country, Turkey had double standards on the ‘Arab Spring,'” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, an Ankara-based analyst for the German Marshall Fund, a think tank. “But recently Turkey is fine tuning its policy. This new policy is based on the demands of the people instead of the priorities of the regimes.”
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotolgu, architect of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy that prioritized good relations with Middle East regimes, all but announced the abandonment of that guideline to reporters Thursday after a meeting with Turkey’s ambassadors and national security team in the Turkish capital of Ankara.
“Our region demands a serious and urgent reform process,” Davotoglu told reporters, according to the semi-official Anatolia News Agency. “Regional people’s demands are normal, rightful and legitimate. Meeting those demands will make our region a more stable, more democratic and more prosperous region. We are ready to do our utmost to help our region complete this transition process in a healthy way.”
Davotoglu said relief workers would cross the Syrian border to bring supplies to thousands of hungry people displaced by Assad’s violent crackdown. Unnamed officials in Ankara were quoted as saying the Turkish military was considering establishing a humanitarian “buffer zone” inside Syria.
And as Syrian troops and pro-government shabhiha militiamen in northwestern Idlib province on Thursday widened their deadly campaign to root out dissent in the region close to Turkey, a Syrian lieutenant colonel and four soldiers deserting their posts took shelter in Turkey, Anatolia reported.
The moves against Damascus, after increasingly escalating rhetoric against Assad’s actions, are cooling once-warming ties with ongoing Syrian ally Iran.
Tehran has begun to criticize Turkey, a growing power in the Middle East and Muslim world, for adopting a “Zionist” foreign policy regarding Syria. Iranian commentators had hoped Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would soften his increasingly boisterous critiques of Assad’s regime after major elections last Sunday. Instead, bolstered by election victories, a healthy economy and widespread popularity in the Arab world, Erdogan appears to have doubled down on his bet against Assad’s regime.
“One thing for sure is that the Syrian troubles are forcing the Turks to reconsider the tenets of their foreign policy,” said Henri Barkey, a Turkey specialist at Lehigh University and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.