EROL CEBECİ and KADİR ÜSTÜN
Insight Turkey, Vol. 14, No.2, 2012, pp. 13-21
As the Assad regime continues its brutal crackdown on the opposition, international efforts have been focused on finding a way to provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people and on convincing Russia and Iran to drop their support for the regime. Little progress has been made on these fronts and it is not clear how the Arab League will be able to increase its pressure. Turkey, for its part, is trying to increase the international attention on Syria while supporting the Syrian opposition inside Turkey.
The international community is divided on Syria and no single country seems able or willing to lead a coalition to end the Assad regime. For its part, the Syrian opposition still lacks the capacity to seriously destabilize the regime. The undoing of the 40-year-old regime with its complex security apparatus and relatively broad base of support among Syrians adds to the conflicting interests of regional and global powers. As many analysts point out, there seem to be no good options on Syria.
Going forward, convincing Russia to reconsider its support for the regime will be crucial to any kind of international effort that would impact the dynamics in Syria in the opposition’s favor. Some analysts have called on Turkey to act unilaterally and possibly take military action to help end the violence in Syria; however, such calls are premature to say the least. Barring an immediate security threat from Syria, Turkey will have to act as part of an international coalition.
Turkey’s Syria Policy: The Pendulum Swings Back
In order to identify the possible actions Turkey may be willing to take in Syria, we need to analyze the course of these countries’ bilateral relations, especially in the past decade. While Turkish policymakers were deeply distrustful and suspicious of Syria in the 1990s, over the past decade Turkey’s Syria policy has dramatically changed. Today, in terms of government-to-government relations, we are back to square one. However, there is a fundamental difference today: Turkey has a significant stake in what happens in Syria’s internal political scene. This was not the case a decade ago.
Turkey’s relations with Syria improved greatly during the tenure of the AK Party government, especially in the second half of the past decade. In the 1990s, Turkish policy toward Syria was defined by the security threat posed by Syrian support for the PKK, which even led Turkey to the brink of war with Syria in the late 1990s. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan’s expulsion in 1998 from Damascus was a turning point in bilateral relations as Ankara’s pressure on Damascus yielded concrete results in terms of security cooperation. As a result, over the past decade, Turkey has developed extensive relations with Syria within the framework of its self-declared “zero problems with neighbors” policy.
Good relations with Syria had represented the hallmark of Turkey’s neighborhood policy toward the Middle East. Turkey not only improved its political and economic relations with Syria but also worked toward ending Syria’s isolation from the international arena through a peace deal with Israel. Positioning itself as an honest broker in the region, Turkey sought to advance its regional interests through economic and political integration on the one hand, and security cooperation on the other. When the first protests against the Assad regime started in Syria, Turkey responded quickly and tried to convince Assad to implement reforms that would create an inclusive and ultimately democratic governance structure. Clearly, the biggest disappointment for the Turkish government has been the Assad regime’s refusal to set the country on a peaceful course and its brutal crackdown on non-violent demonstrators.
Once it was clear that the regime would not respond constructively to Turkish advice and instead insist on using force against its citizens, Turkey took a clear stance against Assad and started openly hosting the Syrian opposition in August 2011. Turkey’s turn against Assad was considered both late and early depending on one’s political position. Liberal activists have argued that Turkey was too late in adopting its anti-Assad stance, while pure “realists” have argued that Turkey should have left an open door to continue negotiations with the regime. In any case, Turkey’s dealings with Assad since the early 2000s have provided Turkey with enough insight to determine that the Assad regime proved incapable of reform and of reaching a reasonably negotiated solution.
The Arab Spring’s Challenge for Turkey
Syria has been the centerpiece in Turkey’s successful redefinition of its neighborhood policy toward the Middle East. Relying on its improved relations, Turkey was able to position itself on the “right side of history” when the Arab Spring came along. In fact, Turkey’s scorecard in responding to the Arab Spring has been impressive and this is clearly reflected in various opinion polls out of Arab countries about Turkey and the perception of Turkish leadership. This reception is based on what the country represents in terms of the level of democratic maturity, economic success, and regional standing. Turkey’s alignment with the people against authoritarian regimes has solidified this positive reception throughout the region. Turkey endorsed the Tunisian revolution and Prime Minister Erdogan was the first leader to call on Egyptian leader Mubarak to step down. At the same time, Turkey refused to adopt a cookie-cutter approach to the uprisings as it maintained communication channels with the authoritarian leaders. Turkey did not, however, endorse the authoritarian status quo; on the contrary, Turkey advocated for reform, change, and responsiveness to the “legitimate demands of the people.” This is what has made Turkey “the biggest winner of the Arab Spring.”
The irony is that while Syria was key to Turkey’s Middle East opening during the past decade, the Assad regime in Syria now poses the most difficult challenge for Turkey. Turkey reacted very quickly to unrest in Syria by offering Assad help in making the necessary political reforms. Assad, in Turkey’s estimation, had ample time to adopt a path of reform, hold elections, and possibly emerge as an elected leader setting the country on the path toward democracy. Turkey told Assad in the bluntest of terms that he would lead the country into chaos if he failed to implement meaningful changes; unfortunately, Assad passed on the opportunity to lead a peaceful transition. More tragically, the Syrian regime made the assessment that it should fight its way out of the current unrest. If it could crush the opposition (“terrorists” in the regime’s vocabulary) early, the Assad regime could return to the status quo. Clearly, the regime chose a path where it could employ its domestic security machine and rely on international alliances in suppressing and delegitimizing the opposition.
The Syrian regime’s unresponsiveness to Turkey’s offer for help in avoiding the “bloody route” out of the Arab Spring has seriously threatened Turkey’s interests in Syria. Turkey has a critical interest in a stable Syria to avoid the security risks that emanate from refugee influxes and possible PKK activism from within Syria. Much of Turkey’s trade with the Middle East had gone through Syria over the past decade but this came to a halt in the wake of the current uprising. Economic development on both sides of the border had been a celebrated fact of life over the past decade but this is no longer the case.
Turkey has promised to stand with the Syrian people against the regime to promote a stable, democratic and inclusive Syria. Above all, Turkey wants to avoid a sectarian civil war which could create a “black hole” in the Middle East and seriously threaten to destabilize the region. Given the Assad regime’s resistance to any proposals for ending the violence – let alone to negotiate with the opposition – and the international community’s inability to agree on a framework for a peaceful transition, calls for arming the opposition and/or for outside military intervention are gaining traction. At the moment, Turkey is focused on getting humanitarian aid to civilians inside Syria while openly making references to “contingency” plans. As the refugee numbers are now above 14,000 with the most recent refugee influx, Turkey has begun to openly talk of establishing a buffer zone. Syria, the most successful example of Turkish soft power in the Middle East, may in fact force Turkey to exercise its hard power.
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