As Syrian Conflict Intensifies, Turkey Fears Renewed Civil Violence

May 24, 2013

Turkish protesters chant slogans during a demonstration against the government of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at Beyazit Square in Istanbul, on March 18, 2012
Credit FreedomHouse2 / Flickr

After decades of fighting, the conflict between the Kurdish nationalist group the PKK and the Turkish government finally drew to a close with a ceasefire in March.

Peace in Turkey may be short-lived, though. Violence in neighboring Syria is steadily intensifying, forcing a reluctant Turkey to respond and possibly putting citizens at risk.

“Most people among the Kurdish population are very optimistic,” says Firat Demir, a University of Oklahoma economist. “The last thing now that a citizen of Turkey wants is to have another civil conflict after this 80-year-old bloody conflict that is ending.”

More involvement in Syria could prove disastrous for the Turkish state. The number of deadly bombings along the Turkish-Syrian border has steadily increased. Turkish officials say many of the perpetrators have ties to the Assad government.

“The Turkish side, I think, is asking for more direct involvement from the U.S. side, and they're asking for more support,” Demir says. “They are definitely within the crossfire now. They are afraid they'll be left out, and plus they'll be a part of the civil war. It may grow out of proportion and damage Turkey big-time.”

Demir says many fear that a similar attack in Istanbul would slow the tourism industry that makes up more than 10 percent of Turkish GDP and 7.2 percent of jobs, according to a 2010 report by the Republic of Turkey Prime Ministry Investment Support and Promotion Agency.

Another concern is the growing authoritarianism of the Turkish government. To prevent protests in Istanbul on May Day this year, Demir says the government shut down bus services and raised bridges to keep people contained.

"They took an entire city of 17 million people under siege on that single day," Demir says.

When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was asked to explain his actions, he said demonstrators weren't there to celebrate May Day, but to protest the government. Demir says Turkish citizens fear that this could be a sign of things to come.