News Analysis: Change in Turkish-Syrian relations may fuel sectarian war in Mideast

2012-12-02 20:06:36 GMT2012-12-03 04:06:36(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

ANKARA, Dec. 2 (Xinhua) -- Turkey's severing ties with Syria over the Syrian government's 21-month-long conflict with the opposition may have far-reaching repercussions in the Middle East and crystallize the already-divided loyalties along ethnic and sectarian lines in the turbulent region.

The shift of Turkish position, from a once-friendly neighbor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to a strong backer of the Syrian opposition, has helped undercut the Syrian government's legitimacy in the region by paving the way for the suspension of Syria's membership in the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

The Assad government, which mostly draws support from Alawite tribes, an offshoot of Shiite, has increasingly aligned itself with Iran, its main regional backer, and Iraq, led by Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

On the other bloc, Turkey joined forces with Sunni regimes in the Middle East, mainly the Saudi Arabia-led Gulf monarchies and Egypt, whose new president is a former Muslim Brotherhood leader.

"Turkey has not only harbored hundreds of thousands refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria, but also hosted and even nurtured Syrian opposition that led to the formation of a broad representative body, recognized by many as legitimate representative of Syria today," Idris Gursoy, a commentator at Turkey's popular weekly news magazine Aksiyon, told Xinhua.

"Turkey has changed dynamics in the Syria and as a result the balance in the Middle East," he added, warning of the unintended consequences of such a policy.

Turkey was once a mediator between Syria and regional states such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, and used to defy Western pressure and promote political and economic relations with Syria. After the eruption of the Syrian crisis, however, Turkey revised its position towards the neighbor in south, which, according to analysts, led to some unintended results.

The Syrian crisis "triggered the fragmentation syndrome on the one hand, while it unveiled a faction-based conflict and civil war on the other," said Abdulhamit Bilici, a columnist at Zaman daily newspaper.

Regional countries are divided on the Syrian issue along the sectarian line, Bilici said, warning that "the Middle East, which is home to the most valuable energy resources in the world, is perhaps heading towards the most dangerous factional polarization. "

POTENTIAL KURDISH PROBLEM

Turkish-Syrian differences have also exacerbated the long- lingering Kurdish problem in the region, as some 3 million Kurds are living in the north of Syria and showing resentments against both the Assad government and the opposition.

Concerned over the Kurdish rights in the future Syria, Kurds are cooperating with their brethren in northern Iraq, led by Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, to form an autonomous bloc against Arabs.

Professor Dogu Ergil of Fatih University said Kurds in Syria will become a serious force to be reckoned with both militarily and politically.

"They will now be able to raise the stakes in the post-Assad bargaining period to gain administrative and economic autonomy," he said, pointing out to the fact that there are oil fields in the region where Kurds live.

Turkey is however concerned that the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Turkey, are gaining de facto influence in the Kurdish cities and towns in northern Syrian and thereby posing more serious threats to Turkish national security.

"Assad is deliberately supporting the PKK and its Syrian affiliate separatist Democratic Union Party to retaliate at Turkey for its backing of Syrian opposition as well as to create a deep rift among the Kurdish opposition groups," Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, professor of international relations at Ankara-based Gazi University, told Xinhua.

"Kurds will become a wild card in the future for Syria and neither Turks nor Arab states are very fond of this eventuality in Syria," he added.

IRAQI INTERNAL WOES

Turkish-Syrian differences are now also felt in Iraq, which saw the departure of U.S. forces by the end of last year.

While supporting Assad in his fight for a survival of the government in Damascus, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki himself is in a locked feud with both Sunni Arabs and Kurds in Iraq over the governance of the country.

Last month, the central government in Iraq came to a brink of war with the autonomous Kurdish region over disputes in the oil- rich territories along their contested internal border.

The tension was resolved peacefully, yet the stakes in a long- running row over lands and oil rights still remain high.

Turkmen, the third biggest ethnic group in Iraq after Arabs and Kurds, are concerned that they will end up paying for a Kurdish- Baghdad conflict which gives them the status of a community with no military force for self-defense. Turkey may be forced to intervene on behalf of its ethnic brethren if conflict engulfs Turkmen.

Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, said the clash between Baghdad and Kurds is the last thing Turkey wants. "The crisis makes the vulnerability of the foreign policy Turkey has conducted in the last two years more apparent," Ulgen underlined.

Serhat Erkmen, an analyst from the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, said that as long as issues such as oil law, Kirkuk and disputed territories over which there is sharp disagreement between various political groups in Iraq are unresolved by compromise, there is always a ground for an armed confrontation.

There is a possibility that the Syrian conflict may degenerate into a region-wide Sunni-Shiite conflict and have the first causality in Iraq, where the Sunni-Shiite rift was first born more than 13 centuries ago. If that happens, it will destabilize the entire Middle East and Turkey will find itself in a very difficult position to insulate from the fallout of such a conflict, analysts said.

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