Turkey's Syrian Dilemma

The Syrian crisis has thrown a wrench into Turkey’s regional ambitions – as long as Assad defies the international community, the country’s foreign policy will remain paralyzed.

As the world waits to see if the UN-brokered ceasefire in Syria will hold, there are probably some Turkish officials who are privately hoping that President Bashar al-Assad fails to honor it. Now that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has turned so resolutely against his former ally in Damascus, the nightmare scenario for Ankara would be a form of limbo in which al-Assad clings on to power for years like former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War.

In spring 2011, when Syria was first shaken by the outbreak of public demonstrations against al-Assad’s repressive rule, Erdogan went on Turkish national television to condemn the protesters. He declared that he had frequently visited the country and seen how much the Syrian people loved their president. The declaration of solidarity was based on more than just the close personal friendship that had developed between the two men. Erdogan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu were convinced that they were building a zone of Turkish influence in the Middle East and that al-Assad would readily comply when they quietly advised him that the best way to defuse the unrest and remain in power was to introduce liberalizing reforms. Not only did al-Assad ignore the advice but he marginalized those members of his inner circle who had traditionally been close to Turkey and opted instead to listen to Iran, which was advising him to crack down hard on the protesters.

Beneath a sense of Muslim solidarity and a shared antagonism towards the West, Turkey and Iran have always been bitter rivals in the Middle East, with each harboring ambitions of becoming the dominant power in the region. As a result, Erdogan’s outrage at the brutality with which al-Assad attempted to crush the protests was compounded by pique and wounded pride.

Yet Turkey’s options have always been limited. Although it has talked of opening a humanitarian corridor to provide aid to beleaguered civilians in Syria, Turkey is extremely reluctant to go it alone. This is partly for practical reasons, given the considerable logistical challenges involved in such an operation and the fear of a humiliating failure. But success would also have its dangers. At a time of rampant Ottoman nostalgia in Ankara, unless they were part of an international force, the presence of Turkish troops – even for ostensibly humanitarian purposes – on the ground in what was once an Ottoman province would set alarm bells ringing in the Arab world, where there is little enthusiasm for a return of Turkish hegemony.

Yet neither are there any other easy options. One of the main problems facing both Turkey and the international community is that the Syrian opposition is so divided that, even if they wished to do so, it would be very difficult to know who to supply with material support, such as weapons. Nor, as things stand, is it possible to predict whether a stable, democratic regime will emerge if al-Assad is eventually forced to relinquish power.

But a perpetuation of the status quo is also very damaging to Turkey. Not only does it mean more uncertainty but, after all the invective that Erdogan has heaped on al-Assad over the last few months, his continued hold on power in Damascus is more than just frustrating for Ankara – it is also a demonstration of Turkey’s impotence at a time when it is desperately trying to assert itself as a regional power.

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