Opinion

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?

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

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.

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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.

Now Turkey has advanced decisively beyond private criticism by leading the push for international action and sanctions against Damascus. Ankara is publicly hosting Syrian opposition leaders along with insurgents who have based themselves within Turkey’s borders, and has reportedly been secretly arming the same forces. It’s preparing unilateral sanctions that go far beyond what any Western power has thus far attempted. 

The breakdown in Syrian relations is having a precipitously negative affect on Turkey’s ties with neighbor Iran, its chief rival – but also important economic partner – for influence in the region. Add to that Turkey’s decision to host NATO radar installations aimed at Iran, and Turkey’s interests are now much more  convergent with the West.

Is Syria an exception, or a policy shift?

The crucial question now is whether Ankara’s turning on Syria is an exception tied to Turkey’s national interests, or whether it’s the start of a foreign-policy realignment that tries to democratize the region to support more Arab awakenings.

Turkish-Syrian relations have oscillated wildly over the years. Given the countries’ extensive shared border, security self-interest may be the overriding motive for this departure from detente. Turks suspect that last month’s well-coordinated attack by Kurdish PKK terrorists in Turkey was supported by Syria as a throwback to the 1990s, when Damascus hosted the PKK leader as leverage against Turkey.

On the other hand, Muslim-majority Turkey’s credibility as a democratic model for the region is being put on the line with every suppressed Syrian protest and refugee who flees to Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan also recognizes Turkey’s historic opportunity: “Turkey is playing a role that can upturn all the stones in the region and that can change the course of history.”

While traditional Turkish foreign policy has been conservative and inward focused, a “new” Turkey that boasts the fastest growing and largest economy in the region has far more tools to push a democracy agenda. As a result of its own process of reform, it is uniquely placed to play a decisive role in assisting and encouraging emerging democracies with its vibrant civil society and private sector.

Turkey may still have serious problems with its allies in the West – for instance, its accession to the European Union is stalled. But with its break with Syria, it is now working from the same script as the United States and Europe.

From the point of view of Turkey’s Western allies, there is more reason than ever to refocus on Ankara’s value as a strategic, economic, and diplomatic bridge between Europe and the Middle East, pointing the way from autocracy to democracy.

Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

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