ANKARA (Reuters) - An explosion of separatist violence in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast is fuelling criticism of the government’s bellicose rhetoric on Syria and dampening what little public appetite there is for intervention in its crisis-torn neighbor.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has been one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s harshest critics, accusing him of creating a “terrorist state”, allowing the Syrian opposition to organize on Turkish soil, and pushing for a foreign-protected safe zone inside Syria.
Washington sees Turkey as the key player both in supporting Syria’s opposition and in planning for what U.S. officials say is the inevitable collapse of the Assad government.
But with soldiers engaged in some of the heaviest fighting in more than a decade with Kurdish militants in the mountainous southeast, public sentiment is swinging against deeper Turkish involvement in Syria. A televised procession of military funerals has turned the focus of national feeling inward.
“I think the Turkish people have now made the connection, rightly or wrong, between the government’s ambitiously assertive policy on Syria and the rise in PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) terrorism,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies think-tank.
“It is very clear that it is going to be even more unpopular going forward if the government continues to scale up the rhetoric (on Syria) at a time when, egregiously in a way, it is unable to deal with Turkey’s own security problems.”
Militants from the PKK - considered a terrorist organization by Ankara, the United States and European Union - have ambushed military convoys, kidnapped government officials and laid roadside bombs in recent weeks.
The military has responded by bombarding PKK camps with fighter jets and attack helicopters, in some of the heaviest fighting since the PKK took up arms in 1984 with the aim of carving out a Kurdish state.
Turkish analysts suspect Assad of allowing a major Syrian Kurdish movement believed to be linked to the PKK to seize control of security in some towns in northern Syria to prevent locals from joining the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Assad has denied allowing the PKK to operate on Syrian soil.
“The Syrian administration has a history of supporting terrorist organizations, including the PKK, and using terrorism as a tool for its politics and diplomacy,” a Turkish foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
“We have some information or evidence that an active link has been re-established,” the official said, declining to comment further.
Ankara has warned it could take military action if the PKK were to launch attacks from Syrian soil and has conducted military exercises on the border in a clear warning to Damascus.
But the idea of sending Turkish troops into majority Kurdish northern Syria, even under any sort of international mandate, would risk inflaming public sentiment further while Turkey battles to contain the PKK on its own soil.
“The current terrorism in Turkey is heavily influenced by the government’s Syria, Iraq and Iran policies,” Faruk Logoglu, vice chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told Reuters.
“Both its domestic policies and foreign policies are contributing to the escalation in violence.”
Erdogan’s ruling AK Party enjoys wide popularity and public demonstrations of anger over its Syria policy have been rare. But frustrations are growing, not least in the southern border province of Hatay, which has absorbed a large proportion of the 80,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey.
Riot police fired teargas to disperse hundreds of demonstrators protesting the government’s Syria policies in the provincial capital Antakya on Sunday. Several dozen more chanted slogans against U.S. policy in Syria outside the U.S. Embassy in Ankara the same day.
Erdogan has called on domestic media to limit their coverage of PKK attacks on soldiers. Turkish TV networks barely mentioned an ambush on Tuesday in which 10 troops were killed, though several newspapers carried pictures.
A cartoon in Wednesday’s opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper showed Erdogan reading a blank newspaper and commenting: “There’s no news or analysis, just as I wanted it.”
Ankara has repeatedly denied it is supplying any weapons to Syria’s rebels, but countries including Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been directing vital military and communications aid to them through Turkey, Gulf sources have said.
The lack of international consensus on Syria has further piqued public sentiment, fuelling a sense that Turkey, increasingly isolated, is being used by Western powers eager to see Assad’s regime fall but reluctant to intervene themselves.
“The Turkish government doesn’t have its own policy in Syria, Western countries do, and the AK Party acts like their spare wheel,” said Ilker Yucel, president of the Turkish Youth Association, who took part in the demonstration in Antakya.
Taken together, rising public skepticism at home and a lack of consensus abroad could lead the Turkish government to tone down its rhetoric on Syria, Ulgen said.
“The combination of these two elements would certainly militate for a change in posturing on the Turkish side, but so far we have not seen signs of this … I think there is mounting pressure for the government to scale down its ambitions.”
Erdogan has been passionate in defending his stance.
“We are a country with a 910 kilometer common border, connected by relatives. For Syria, we are not the USA, nor are we England, nor Iran, nor Russia. A country in Asia can remain indifferent over Syria but Turkey does not have this luxury,” he told an AK Party meeting this month.
“While Syria is boiling and exposed to brutal killings, we could not, and did not, turn our backs.”
The stance is damaging fragile relations with Iran and Iraq.
Some fear it could also fan sectarian tensions in Sunni Muslim Turkey, which has Alawite and other minorities.
Syria’s mainly Sunni Muslim rebels are supported by Gulf Arab states in their struggle to topple Assad, whose minority Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam. Shi‘ite Iran has been Assad’s staunchest ally.
“Turkey finds itself in the uncomfortable position of taking sides with Sunnis. We have to take ourselves back from this perception,” one source close to the government told Reuters recently, saying the international community had underestimated the extent of Assad’s support.
“Alawites, Christians, Kurds are supporting him not because they love him but because they see the alternative as chaos.”
Additional reporting by Pinar Aydinli in Ankara, Seltem Iyigun, Can Sezer, Ayla Jean Yackley and Ece Toksabay in Istanbul; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Ralph Boulton