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The Monitor's View

Syria a test case for democratic Turkey

The bloody and widespread crackdown on democracy protesters in Syria presents an opportunity for Turkey to reconsider its 'zero problems' foreign policy – and work with its NATO allies to change the ideological landscape of the Middle East.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / May 9, 2011



The increasingly violent crackdown on democracy protesters in Syria has become a test case for neighboring Turkey and its ties to the West.

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As a member of NATO and the only democracy in the Muslim Middle East, Turkey has long boasted about “zero problems” on its borders. It actively sought to better ties with its neighbors, no matter their political persuasion. This approach has collected a string of successes, most notable Syria, with which Turkey almost went to war in 1998.

Since then, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has developed a warm friendship with Syria’s autocratic leader, President Bashar al-Assad. The two governments held joint cabinet meetings and military exercises. Trade surged.

But the limits of Turkey’s influence as a regional peace broker are now becoming clear. Despite Mr. Erdogan’s personal pressuring of Mr. Assad to reform, Syria’s forcible put-down and mass killing of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators has escalated to an alarming degree.

Similarly, after the democratic revolt began in Libya, Erdogan talked with Col. Muammar Qaddafi, offering him a plan to quit power and call elections. Mr. Qaddafi ignored him, though Turkey was instrumental in negotiations to free four New York Times journalists who had been detained by Libyan authorities.

Examples of “zero problem” failures extend further back in time: Turkey’s clumsy attempt to work out a nuclear-fuel arrangement with Iran; a severely strained relationship with Israel, in contrast to a time when Turkey had once facilitated Israeli-Syrian talks.

The reasons for Turkey’s limited success are multiple. Cornered dictators are not so easy to remove. As Erdogan said last week, he’s not sure whether Assad – who had appeared to be a reformer – has lost interest in change, or whether he is being overruled by others in his government.

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