| ANKARA, Sept 19
ANKARA, Sept 19 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
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
organise 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
"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
organisation 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 organisations, 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
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 scepticism 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 kilometre 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."