Nobody in Turkey wants war with Syria

Ordinary people say Syrians are their brothers while those in power have voiced concern over strained relations.

Here in Ankara I’ve spoken to the high and mighty, and I’ve spoken to the ordinary people going about their business in the old market, and my overriding impression is this: Nobody wants war with Syria, and everyone understands it could be very messy and bloody for Turkey should it happen.

In the market place I was told that the Syrian people are “brothers”, united with Turkey by 400 years of friendship. And in the corridors of power I sensed caution and concern, not bravado and bombast. This mood is quite different to the one I recall in Ankara in October 2007, when the Turkish parliament passed a motion allowing the government to launch military operations into Iraq in pursuit of the Kurdish PKK. Then the press was full of voices calling for decisive action, but this time almost all the newspaper coloumnists strike a restrained and responsible tone.

The main opposition, the CHP, which voted against the latest motion to allow cross-border military action, is highly critical of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Syrian policy. I went to speak to its head of foreign policy, Faruk Logoglu. He is a sombre but eloquent man. As Turkey’s ambassador to Washington during the Iraq war, he knows a thing or two about diplomatic crises. So what is his assessment now of Turkey’s policy towards Syria? “A disaster”, is his bleak reply. He argues that the Turkish government’s “complete embrace of the Syrian opposition, including its military components” has only “intensified the conflict … and probably resulted in more deaths than would have occurred otherwise.”

As you would expect, officials in the governing Justice and Development (AK) party see things rather differently. “We are biased in Syria”, says AK Party MP Ali Riza Alaboyun, “but we are biased on the side of the Syrian people.” He stresses that Turkey does not want war, that the parliamentary motion is intended to deter, and that any action in Syria will be taken in consultation with NATO allies. The Turkish shelling of Syrian territory, in response to the death of five civilians at Akcakale, was, says Mr Alaboyun, firmly within the limits of international law.

The conflict in Syria threatens to exacerbate rifts that already exist in Turkey. Here in the Guardian Mohammed Ayoob argues that the Alevi minority (much of which supports the opposition CHP) tends to see the situation in Syria differently to the Turkish government. And both he and Lindsey Hilsum of the UK’s Channel 4 explain how Turkey’s ever-festering Kurdish issue threatens to blow up again as a consequence of the war in Syria.

So where does all this leave Turkey’s much-vaunted “zero problems with neighbours”, promoted by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu? In tatters, sneer the government’s critics. That’s not fair, responds an AK Party official, “we live in a very tough neighbourhood, but we want democracy to spread through it.”

I meet a Turkish politician who has spoken with Bashar al-Assad on several occasions. What does he think of the Syrian leader? “A very polite man, but a beautiful liar,” he replies enigmatically.

There are no easy solutions for Turkey as it seeks to control the fall-out from the fighting in Syria. Tit-for-tat firing will probably continue over the border. And as long as Mr Assad clings on, people in Turkey will fear, and dread their own country getting sucked further into the tragedy next door.

Barnaby is on twitter at @BarnabyPhillips