Syria and Beyond: The Need for a Steady Turkish Hand

WASHINGTON—Both the Friends of Syria meeting held last week in Istanbul (which continued a pattern of indecisive commitments toward the Syrian uprising) and the Arab Summit held in Baghdad shortly before (which barely masked regional disagreement about Damascus) underlined the importance of a re-energized role for Turkey in an escalating crisis that risks spinning out of control. Deferring to the United States’ more cautious approach, and seemingly lacking a comprehensive approach toward its southern neighbor, Turkey has visibly retreated from its initially bold and assertive stand on the brutal crackdown of the Syrian regime. By contrast, Moscow and Tehran are displaying none of the hesitation that characterizes the positions of Washington and Ankara. Russia has provided a robust diplomatic cover for the Syrian regime to pursue repressive measures with impunity, while Iran continues to supply the Assad government with the technical and logistic support to complete its crackdown. Still, such an imbalance notwithstanding, the regime is yet to prevail against what is a deeply rooted and widespread uprising.

In Istanbul, the Syrian opposition made symbolic gains in terms of international recognition. It was, however, unable to secure a consensus, even among its supporters, on the need for material support. While U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underlined that U.S. support to the uprising would be limited to humanitarian aid, her Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Sa’ud al-Faisal, reiterated his call and intent to arm the rebels. These divergent and potentially conflicting policies were presented as complementary approaches, to the dismay of opposition activists. In opting for the studious incremental approach, the Obama administration is obviously concerned about the shape of a post-Assad Syria. The fractured opposition may indeed prove incapable of containing the descent into chaos. Many in the Arab world, on the other hand, are convinced that the gravity of the Syrian situation will only be exacerbated by a delay in the fall of the regime.

Probably, no one has a higher stake in ensuring that the Syrian hinterland is not transformed into a Yemen-style haven for terrorism than Turkey. Reconciling diverging policies ― avoiding a reckless flow of arms to the rebels on one hand, and being a helpless bystander to the ongoing massacres by the regime’s forces on the other ― will present a true test of Turkish leadership in the region. While Turkey has so far presented goodwill, promises, and many memorable sound bites, it has yet to deliver concrete value. As an institutional democracy, a successful economy, a civil state that has been able to recalibrate the role of the military, a polity that has endeavored to conform to EU standards, and, perhaps most importantly, a trusted interlocutor of Israel, Turkey offers valuable resources to many of its Arab neighbors. In engaging the Arab world, however, Turkey seemed at times eager to emulate the Iranian model instead of capitalizing on its considerable assets.

There may be some dividends, both domestic and regional, from Ankara’s altercations with Israel, which itself has been less-than-determined to diffuse tensions with Turkey. It is evident, however, that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cannot replicate the populism of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in appealing to reflexive anti-Israel sentiments in the region, nor should he. Turkey’s ability to engage Israel is far more valuable for all stakeholders.

Even more dramatically, Turkey has allowed itself to mirror the Iranian protectionist approach to Arab Shi’a communities by acting as a presumed defender of supposedly Sunni interests. This is visible in the relations between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and some Arab Islamist formations, to the detriment of Turkey’s real constituents in the region: non-ideological forces for whom Turkey represents a plausible reconciliation of values and progress. It is even more acute in Turkey’s failure to preserve its political credit with the Iraqi government, which had hoped that Ankara would balance the disturbing influence of Tehran, resulting in accusations that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was targeting and alienating Sunnis. Turkey’s association with the supposed Sunni cause has only further limited its policy toward Syria.

For its own interest and benefit, and those of the region, Turkey is best served by assuming a leadership role on the Syrian issue, mediating transatlantic and Arab approaches, harmonizing policies, and managing expectations. Its unique relations with both Iran and Russia may be leveraged to forge a shared understanding of the Syria challenge that separates the inevitable regime change in Damascus from the macro-conflicts pitting both Moscow and Tehran against the West. For Turkey to be the steady hand in the Middle East region, it has to practice a kind of politics not common in the region, marked by productive realism rather than populism. Restoring its engagement with Iraq may be the prerequisite. Devising, leading, and implementing a strategy for Syria may be the real test.

Hassan Mneimneh is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington DC.