Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is standing his ground with Syria - but he’s not letting the superpowers off the hook either, as Joanna Andrews reports he holds the UN Security Council to blame for failing to end the intensifying civil war
Turkey’s Prime Minister has sharply criticised the United Nations Security Council for its failure to agree on concrete steps to end the Syrian civil war. Recep Tayyip Erdogan told an international conference in Istanbul in October that the world was witnessing a humanitarian tragedy in Syria.
“The UN Security Council has not intervened in the human tragedy that has been going on in Syria for 20 months, despite all our efforts,” he said. “There’s an attitude that encourages, gives the green light to Assad to kill tens or hundreds of people every day.”
Erdogan said, “If we wait for one or two of the permanent members ... then the future of Syria will be in danger.” In this case, it was a reference to Russia and China, two of the five permanent Security Council members that have repeatedly refused to back international calls for Assad to step down. The duo has jointly vetoed three rounds of UN Security Council sanctions against the Syrian leader.
Erdogan called for a reform of the Security Council, which he called an “unequal, unfair system” that didn’t represent the will of most countries.
He likened it to what he called UN failures in Bosnia in the 1990s. “How sad it is that the United Nations is as helpless today as it was 20 years ago when it watched the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people in the Balkans, Bosnia and Srebrenica.”
The United Nations International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, who has repeatedly called the crisis in Syria an “impossible mission”, has asked Iranian authorities for help in achieving a ceasefire in Syria during the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha. A statement issued after Brahimi held talks with officials in Tehran also said he underlined that the crisis in Syria “was getting worse every day”, and stressed the “urgent need to stop the bloodshed”.
Turkey has repeatedly led calls for intervention, including no-fly zones enforced by foreign aircraft to stop deadly air raids by Assad’s forces.
Ankara has a vested interest, as it sits dangerously close to Syria’s largest city Aleppo - a district whose ancient buildings have been severely damaged by the conflict - where there is regular fierce fighting between rebels and regime forces. Erdogan admitted, “We’re not interested in war, but we’re not far from it either.”
Nonetheless, Turkey became the first country to act militarily when its forces exchanged fire with Bashar Al Assad’s army along the Syrian border. Tensions between Ankara and Damascus worsened as the conflict escalated on October 3, when Syrian mortar shells hit a Turkish border town killing five civilians – a woman and four children.
Just a few months earlier the Assad regime downed a Turkish fighter jet it claimed was over Syrian territorial waters. Not surprising, the incident sparked outrage in Ankara. The rising tension led to Turkish jets intercepting and forcing down a Syrian passenger plane that it suspected of transporting military equipment from Russia. Turkey said it seized military equipment on board, although Russia has said there were no weapons on the plane and that it was carrying a “legal” shipment of radar equipment.
With that, Turkey probably lost any chance it might have had to persuade Moscow to soften its opposition at the Security Council as relations between Ankara and Moscow sank to new lows.
Ankara has now banned all Syrian aircraft from its air space. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, “We made a new decision… and informed Syria. We closed our airspace to civilian Syrian flights as well as military flights.”
Just one day earlier, Syria banned Turkish planes from its airspace.
It’s estimated that more than 32,000 people have been killed in Syria since the revolt against President Bashar Al Assad erupted some 20 months ago and the United Nations estimates that more than 2.5 million people have been affected.
Turkey is struggling to deal with the tens of thousands of refugees who have flooded over its borders. Turkey’s Europe minister has called on Europe to do more to help it tackle in excess of 100,000 refugees on Turkish soil. In an Interview with German daily Die Welt Egemen Bagis accused the bloc of being fixated on its debt crisis. “Europe should start thinking about the people who have fled Syria into Turkey,” he said. “Europe is in a state of paralysis. There is no progress because it is completely fixated on the euro crisis.”
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Watch has accused the Syrian government forces of dropping Soviet-made cluster bombs over civilian areas in Syria as they battled to reverse rebel advances - an act which rights groups say can constitute a war crime. Cluster bombs, designed to kill as many people as possible, are considered such a threat to civilian populations that more than 100 nations have banned their use under a convention which became international law in 2010, but Syria has not signed it, nor has Russia, China or the US.
Turkey has experienced a period of economic success over the last 10 years resulting in success at the ballot box; the model Erdogan has carved out for himself internationally and at home is a model that neighbouring states have failed to emulate. Erdogan has overseen a near tripling of per capita economic growth in Turkey during almost a decade in power and he is keen to maintain his reputation and popularity ahead of elections. Turkey was Europe’s fast-growing economy in 2011, with growth of 8.5 per cent. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is expected to reach 3.2 per cent this year.
War would certainly impact tourism and trade – two of the key drivers of growth. Any hope of the rebellion blowing over has disappeared. With tensions on knife edge the main concern now is how to prevent a spillover from Syria to Turkey and beyond the wider region.