Turkey's Syria Imperative

Ankara wants to prove it is a regional leader. It should start by helping find a solution for Syria.

Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has famously pursued an ambitious zero-problems-with-the-neighbors policy. But Davutoglu, Turkey’s would-be Kissinger, has been trying to demonstrate that he can just as easily turn his back on the West.

Though the European Union, led by France and Germany, continues to give the cold shoulder to Turkey's membership application, a more diplomatically assertive and economically advanced Turkey has another option in terms of a grand strategy: playing a leading role in the formation of an economic and political union of Middle Eastern states, one that would include neighboring Syria and other Levantine entities that once upon a time were part of the Ottoman Empire.

Arab Dreams and Realities

In the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, support for this geo strategic concept has been gaining some momentum. Pro democracy activists in Tunisia and Egypt—joined by Wilsonian daydreamers in Washington and other Western capitals—propose that Turkey could provide a model for the region: a successful Muslim democracy and a thriving free-market economy under which political Islam and liberalism could coexist and flourish. Hence, Davutoglu’s realpolitik regional project could be sustained by the force of idealism—or Turkey’s “soft power.”

But as the political crisis in Syria, in Turkey’s strategic backyard, threatens to degenerate into a bloody civil war, Davutoglu and his colleagues in the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) are recognizing that establishing a version of the EU in the neighboring Middle East involves more than just sending trade missions to the Arab world, producing captivating television soap operas or pledging a commitment to promote the Palestinian cause.

Indeed, while Americans may be from Mars and Europeans from Venus, the Middle East is now experiencing an explosive big bang, and Turkey is finding that being pulled into the developments in the region is like being drawn into a political black hole—and that getting out of it requires more than just soft power.

While the notion that Egypt would become “another Iran” smacked of political-cultural determinism, the expectations that Egypt, or for that matter Yemen or Morocco, would end up embracing the Turkish model were propelled by a lot of wishful thinking. After all, the evolution of Turkey into a more or less functioning democracy was a century-long drama involving larger-than-life players like Ataturk, social instability, political crises, ethnic warfare, military coups, the emancipation of women, and the rise of a new middle class and business elite.

The idea that you can condense and transplant all these and other historical changes to Egypt or neighboring Syria—just because it is a Muslim society—makes as much sense as trying to have Mexico adopt the American way of life because it is a neighboring country that also has a Christian majority.

Syrian Tremors

But the crisis in Syria should bring Mexico to the mind of an American observer. The strategic stakes for Ankara in the upheaval taking place in its southern neighbor—its longest common border—are as high as those that would force Washington to pay attention and do something if Mexico were convulsing into an open-ended civil war.

In fact, for much of Turkey’s existence and Syria’s independence, the relationship between the two countries has been strained. This was the result of tensions over demands by the Syrians that the Turks return the annexed Hatay Province and Turkish anger over Damascus’s backing of secessionist Kurdish guerrillas, the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) and control of regional water sources. The issue of the PKK almost triggered a war between the two countries, and their military rows were one of the reasons for close military cooperation between Turkey and Israel.

The diplomatic détente between Turkey and Syria commenced even before Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist party came to power and Davutoglu launched his zero-problems strategy. In the aftermath of the Cold War, Syria could no longer count on Moscow as a reliable global military power. Meanwhile, Turkey found itself in a series of disagreements with Washington over its Middle East policies, culminating in Ankara’s refusal to support U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Thus the growing economic and military cooperation between the two countries had more to do with the changing Turkish perception of its national interest than with the Islamist ideology of the AKP. Erdogan even attempted to juggle Ankara’s competing commitments to improve ties with Syria and maintain its relationship with Israel by trying to facilitate peace between the Israelis and the Syrians in 2008. But the talks collapsed after Israel angered Erdogan by launching a military campaign in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip that same year.

Even more difficult has been the Turkish attempt to maintain its zero-problems strategy at a time when there are mounting problems with its Syrian neighbor. Unfortunately, since the start of the unrest in Syria last year, ad hoc responses by Davutoglu failed to evoke the spirit of Kissinger-type diplomacy—or even to measure up to the bargaining skills of the merchants in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Turks certainly seem to have made very little impression on the Machiavellian rulers in Damascus, who rejected Erdogan’s pleadings to play nice. So much for Turkish soft power.

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