Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of a sectarian war in Syria if the Baath regime continues to use force to suppress the uprising and Syrian newspapers responded by criticising Ankara’s position and its Islamist party.
Will Turkey affect the positions of certain sects in Syria on the revolution as it witnesses the largest popular protests since the Baath Party came to power in 1963?
“The Turkish position is well ahead of the Arab position,” asserts Syrian opposition figure Bashar Al-Eissa, who lives in Brussels, Belgium. “Turkey has great influence in Syria; since the Justice and Development Party came to power it has been a constant supporter of Syria on most regional issues. Meanwhile, trade between the two countries has grown over the past five to six years.”
The ruling party in Turkey declared a regional policy, which Foreign Minister Ahmed Dawood Aghlo dubbed “zeroing problems,” which means decreasing disputes with neighbours to “zero.”
Accordingly, Ankara mediated between Damascus and Tel Aviv to push forward for peace and partnered with Brazil to reach an agreement on exchanging Iranian uranium, which Western powers disapproved of.
“The markets of Allepo [in northern Syria] speak Turkish,” Al-Eissa gave an anecdote, “while the Sufi Sunni sects have strong ties with Qawniya [central Turkey] since the time of the Ottomans.”
Tamam Al-Barazi, a Syrian activist living in Washington, believes that today Turkey “supports the Muslim Brotherhood, as demonstrated by several indicators, such as the monitor of the Syrian Brotherhood residing in Istanbul, where the general assembly of the group’s Shura Council convened.”
Turkey, with a majority of Sunnis supporting the Islamist Justice and Development Party, is also home to an Alawite minority (of Syrian origins) that constitute 17 per cent of the population. They adopt a secular outlook, has a strong presence in the army and the fields of culture, art and journalism.
“Syria needs Turkey as much as it needs Iranian support,” asserts Al-Barazi.
A source who prefers to remain anonymous stated: “The Syrian regime used the Turkish presence to appease the Syrian middle class [the majority], especially with the rise in the number of women who are wearing the veil and niqab [face veil] and the growing number of youth that attend mosque to worship, especially in rural areas in the north.”
As soon as the revolution began in the Sunni tribal city of Deraa, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad took steps to appease the residents. For instance, he backtracked on a decision to ban teachers that wear the niqabfrom teaching and ordered them to their classes after they were reassigned to administrative jobs. They also closed the only gambling casino in the country.
“The revolution today is overwhelmingly Sunni,” stated the source, “including Arabs in Hems, Banyas and Deraa, as well as Kurds in Al-Qamashli, Amuda and Der Al-Zur.”
The source continued: “Turkey improves Syria’s image in the West despite [the latter’s] alliance with Iran, which is viewed with hostility by the West and further antagonised because of complications in Iran’s nuclear programme and its support of Shiite opposition in Arab Gulf states, especially Bahrain.”