Since the beginning of the political crisis in Syria, no country has been more outspoken about the atrocities of the Assad regime than Turkey. Faced with a desire to strengthen its popularity in the region, and faced with a humanitarian crisis on its door, Turkey was forthright in its criticism. By the late fall of 2011, Turkey was pushing the international community towards action and was increasingly hostile towards Damascus, both behind closed doors and in front of them.
So what happened to Turkey's zeal to end the crisis in Syria? The answer to that question may tip off that the fate of foreign intervention lies in Ankara's hands.
Answers could depend on only a handful of factors: does Turkey benefit from pushing for intervention, does Turkey's relationship with Russia and Iran suffer as a result of the crisis, and is the humanitarian crisis a sufficient liability to encourage action?
Today we feature two authors who shed light on these questions. The first, Soner Cagaptay of The New Republic argues that pushing for intervention could weaken Turkey's popularity, which has become its primary foreign policy asset.
In the second article, Ziya Meral of Daily News Egypt makes the bold argument that Turkey's close relationship with Russia may force Moscow to join the diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis. Yet this highlights the multitude of entanglements that the Turkish government must negotiate before a course of action can be plotted.
Why Turkey Hasn’t Intervened in Syria
Why Turkey Hasn’t Intervened in Syria
What explains Ankara’s rise in popularity? It stems from Turkey’s successful projection of soft power across the Middle East over the past decade. Turkish products, which dominate shops across the region, have brought Turkey clout the way Japanese cars ushered in global respect for Japan in the 1970s and 1980s. And Turkish soap operas depicting emancipated women against the background of a modern and functioning society have likewise appealed to the region’s population, suggesting an appealing social model that is within reach. “Most people in the Middle East view Turkey’s accomplishments as being replicable,” an Arab friend of mine suggested to me. “Turkey was once like us, and that is why we like it, for it suggests a way forward.”
Turkey’s newfound popularity across the Middle East is its greatest foreign policy asset; for Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, it is key to restoring the country’s regional power status. But imagine what a Turkish occupation of Syria would do to Turkey’s popularity in the Arab world. A Turkish intervention, even if it removed Assad, would turn the Turks into occupiers in the eyes of the Syrian people, a trap that the United States experienced in Iraq. And Turkish military action in Syria would evoke the memory of Ottoman Turkish hegemony in the Middle East, creating further antagonism. There is simply no easy way for Turkey to kick out Assad by sheer military force if it hopes to continue being liked in the region.
The Syrian Crisis and Its Implications for Turkish-Russian Relations
From the Turkish point of view, Russian interests in Syria are thin. A small symbolic naval base, seemingly lucrative yet limited arms sales, and assertion of the usual bravado of "standing against colonial western interventionism" are no compensation for what Russia stands to lose through its dangerous Syria policy.
In contrast, for Turkey, what happens next in Syria represents more than a distant humanitarian crisis. With a lengthy land border between the two countries, the implications of a large-scale refugee influx, the potential of a prolonged civil war, all the ills that come with having a failed state as a neighbor, and the possible spillover of Syrian unrest into Turkey, the Syria question is a top foreign policy concern for Turkey.
The AKP government adopted a strong public stand against the Assad regime and burned bridges painstakingly built since 1999 as soon as it became clear that the Assad family would not pursue reforms and stop its violence. Turkey embraced great economic losses in the process, but it has stuck to its position that the Assad regime must go and championed many of the international initiatives against the regime.
Will Turkey soon adopt a similar bold stand against Russia, which has direct culpability in the deaths of thousands of innocent Syrians? The answer is: not likely. Turkey is pursuing quiet and friendly pressure on Russia to change Moscow's position. The last example of this were the recent gentle statements by President Gul, who said that ultimately Russia will see that it has no choice but to join diplomatic efforts to force Assad from his post.