Turkey’s Syrian Conundrum

BY AZEEM IBRAHIM** | 18.08.2011

Turkey’s secular democracy is increasingly establishing itself as a fulcrum for East-West relations, notably as a bridge to Iran and Syria. Its pending application to join the European Union is seen by some to be a powerful opportunity for better Middle East relations, enriching the possibilities of a more effective and substantial EU foreign policy. Others are uncomfortable with a perceived cultural misfit and there is a fear of Turkey’s neighbors as the main source of Europe’s security concerns.

erdogan_esadBut most policymakers in the West have welcomed Turkey’s growing rapprochement with Syria and since the Syrian uprising five months ago, are hoping that Turkey can use its influence to stop the bloodshed. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu appealed on August 9, 2011 to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to stop killing civilians, saying that Turkey is “running out of patience” with its neighbor. Assad subsequently gave assurances to the Turkish but armed repression still continues, with some 1600 dead since protests began, causing many refugees, including Syrian Kurds, to flee across the 870 kilometer border into Turkey.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton again called on Turkey this week to use its influence in Syria to stop using force against civilians. Turkey has deplored the “savagery” but has refrained from calling for Assad’s departure as the US requested. The Syrian opposition is slow to offer a credible and viable political alternative to Assad whose survival now depends on the Syrian business community. While the merchant families of Aleppo and Damascus continue to support the pro-regime paramilitary groups, most of the powerful silent majority fear civil war more than shifting their political allegiance and the situation is a painful and tragic stalemate for the regime and the protesters.

The Turks are reluctant to consider sanctions on Syria because of the close intertwining of the countries. In fact, Prime Minister Erdogan is on record saying that Syria is considered an internal Turkish matter — meaning whatever happens in Syria will have an immediate impact on Turkey. Both sides therefore recognize the complex dangers of rapid change and destabilization and Syria presumably does not want its growing international isolation to include EU oil sanctions. Apart from freezing assets of prominent Syrian businessmen and calling for a fact finding mission to gather evidence to try Assad by an international war crimes tribunal, the West is relatively powerless. As Randa Slim, scholar at the Middle East Institute said recently, “The lighter the footprint of the international community, the more credible will be the outcome to the majority of Syrians.” Certainly, it is clear that the NATO involvement in Libya and Afghanistan means there are no resources available for armed intervention on humanitarian grounds from the EU or the US.

Until the recent signs of a strained friendship, Turkey and Syria have been enjoying a friendly relationship ever since 2003 when Turkey refused to cooperate with the US over the Iraq invasion. This signal that Turkey could operate independently of the US gained it respect from other Middle Eastern countries. Turkey has also shown its independence of the power of its armed forces which has been significant in past Turkish history. Recent events have seen a gradual shift from military to civilian rule, with the arrest and trials for treason of over 200 officers and 40 generals in recent years, culminating in the resignations in August of the Chief of Staff and three top command staff.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a pious Muslim and a pragmatic legislator, currently working to establish a new constitution which will make Turkey an ‘advanced democracy’. Some feel relief that he has broken the stranglehold of the generals on Turkey’s foreign and domestic policies, while the opposition parties fear that Erdogan’s AKP party is taking on too much power. There is concern for example, that Turkey has fallen to 138th out of 178 countries in the World Press Freedom index.

But Turkey’s economy is strong and as long as the country prospers, Erdogan has no need of total international or European approval. In fact the EU needs him as a broker of peace and stability in the Middle East. Turkey’s relationship with Syria has been strengthened through bilateral trade deals which reached $2.5 billion in 2010 and mutual agreements have been reached on issues such as the Arab Natural Gas Pipeline, water rights, terrorism and regional relationships with Iraq, Israel-Palestine and Lebanon.

The big question now is how relations will develop with Iran, as Syria is the only ally Iran has in the Arab world. With both Turkey and Iran as major stakeholders in Syria, and with their complex relationship creating differing ideas about the Syrian crisis, there will be some tense repositioning in the days ahead.

In the meantime, the spotlight is on Turkey, once called The Sick Man of Europe, but now the new powerhouse in the region. As a democratizing, secular, though mainly Muslim country, Turkey is a powerful example to other Arab Spring countries like Egypt attempting to reach a similar balance. It is assumed that Turkey will see its influence in Syria increase as events play out, reinforcing Turkey’s emergence as the major regional power player.

* First published at HuffingtonPost.

**Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.

More writings here: http://www.azeemibrahim.com

Follow Azeem Ibrahim on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@AzeemIbrahim

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