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Turkey's bold about-face on Syria

Turkey's support for Syrian insurgents reverses detente with Damascus. Its about-face can reinforce an Arab League agreement with Syria to end violence, and reassure the West of its commitment to NATO values. But is the break an exception, or a broad change in foreign policy?

By Joshua W. Walker / November 3, 2011


Turkey’s bold backing of regime change in Syria – until recently a close friend – has caught many by surprise.

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By hosting Syrian insurgents and political opposition figures, and by readying harsh unilateral sanctions against Damascus, Turkey’s about-face with Syria signals a potentially significant shift to much stronger support for the democratic Arab awakening.

That could reinforce yesterday’s agreement between the Arab League and the Syrian government. Syria says it will end the bloody crackdown on protesters, release political prisoners, and begin talks with the opposition – though Turkish officials say they have heard these promises before.

Turkey’s firm break with Syria should also reassure Turkey’s NATO allies, who had begun to question the commitment of the region’s most established Muslim democracy to its Western ties and values.

The Arab Spring is forcing Ankara to confront the new realities of the Middle East. For the last decade, it has sought to open new markets and expand its regional influence through a policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” It put no democratic preconditions on economic partners such as Iran and Syria, and this accommodating approach has sometimes caused friction with its NATO allies.

True, Turkey initially inspired admiration in the West – and Arab world – for its early embrace of the democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. But it misjudged Libya, where it had strong business ties, by initially rejecting sanctions and even opposing NATO’s involvement, before ultimately changing course.

And Turkey’s bellicosity toward former friend Israel stood in stark contrast to its silence with Iran and Syria as they buried their citizens’ demands for democracy.

But Ankara’s 180-degree turn with Damascus marks a decisive break from its “zero problems” policy.

In 2002, Turkey had invested more diplomatically and economically in Syria than in any of its neighbors. This transformed its relationship from one of military confrontation rooted in cold-war geopolitics and Syria’s support for separatist Kurdish terrorists in Turkey, to one of economic cooperation. Turkey's ties to Syria became a model for rapprochement that Ankara then applied to other problematic neighbors such as Greece and Iraq.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is known for valuing loyalty. True to his word, he stuck by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad longer than any other Western friend – to the point of risking his own credibility in the transatlantic community. Following a similar pattern in Libya, he tried to play the role of mediator and empathetic friend until it became painfully clear that Damascus was no longer listening.


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