Turkish President Abdullah Gül’s finger-pointing at the West that lays blame on almost everyone but Turkey for the deaths of over one hundred thousand Syrians, mostly civilians, says more about Turkish arrogance than Gül’s hollow posturing as a wannabe statesman. Syria, he warns, is becoming Afghanistan on the shores of the Mediterranean. He makes the point that Turkey is already hosting over half a million Syrian refugees, although over half live in cities, towns, and villages through their own means. The blame, Gül decries, falls upon the West for allowing Syrian president Bashar Assad and the Russians to use disposal of Syrian chemical weapons as a diversion to bolster Assad’s position.
“Do we reduce the whole thing to chemical weapons?” he stormed, demanding that the U.S. and Britain do more to end the crisis. Actually, while refugees rightly arouse humanitarian concerns, Assad’s store of weapons of mass destruction are what most directly threaten America’s vital security interests. All sides have a strong interest in keeping Assad’s chemical weapons out of the hands of violent Muslim Sunni extremists, especially those identified with Al Qaeda.
The many deaths are a tragedy. But the U.S. is not all-powerful. If preventing civilian deaths is what should drive American policy, we have a crisis on our own border, in Mexico, whose fate directly and immediately affects our security. There, drug cartels have slaughtered over eighty thousand civilians while (arguably) establishing their own parallel state.
The U.S. should foster support with NATO partners like Turkey. But let’s understand what drives Turkish politics. Gül and his prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, are mainly worried about threats from Al Qaeda operatives in Syria associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIL has threatened suicide attacks unless Turkey reopens key border-crossing points at Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh. It has claimed responsibility for twin car bombings that killed fifty in the refugee center of Reyhanli, in Turkey’s southern province. ISIL apparently has planned other attacks on Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir.
What happened? Turkey miscalculated on two strategic points. It underestimated Assad’s tenacity and misjudged how long the uprising would endure. The Turks expected Assad to collapse quickly. Instead, Assad rallied support from Hezbollah and Iran, as well as within Syria itself.
Gül and Erdoğan also failed to anticipate that many of the foreign fighters who poured into Syria might end up in Turkey, creating a refugee crisis within Turkey itself. By funneling support to the rebels, Turkey ignited a process it now finds itself struggling to stop. It wearies of refugee crossings and the abuse of its sovereignty for transiting weapons and chemicals. Just two weeks ago, Turkish officials reportedly seized twenty bags of sulfur, an ingredient for manufacturing mustard gas.
The lesson learned is the danger of half-measures. Turkey opposes Assad. But it has taken limited steps to support his removal. Like other Arab nations in the region who oppose the Syrian regime, Turkey has talked loudly about helping rebels. Still, the core of its policy seems rooted in the hope that the U.S. and the West will strike down Assad through military action.
Almost certainly, toppling Assad at this point would require strong military action. Here is the question: at what point do key regional actors, including aspiring power players like Turkey, commit their own military resources to achieving that goal if they feel so strongly about ridding Syria of Assad?
Asking the United States to providing technical and logistical support for Syrian rebels is one thing. But for regional nations to expect the U.S. or other Western allies to do their fighting for them is offensive. This is their neighborhood. They have well-equipped and trained militaries. When have they offered to put those on the line for a cause they apparently consider important? Turkey is no Lone Ranger in regional flinching. The Saudis also want Assad gone. But Riyadh’s stance is about treating the US as a paid mercenary to do its work. If Saudi wants to stop Assad, it too is going to have to do more than open its checkbook.
For his part, Assad has been fast on the uptake in poking Turkey in the eye. He gave Halk TV, usually critical of Turkey’s government, an interview and blasted Erdoğan and his foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu as “bigoted”, and said their true goal was to promote power by Syria’s Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Anyone who wants to understand where the Brotherhood’s heart truly lies need only cast an eye on Egypt. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood ostensibly supported ethnic and religious tolerance and democratic pluralism—until it gained power. Then the truth surfaced. It true aim was for an Islamic Republic. Not surprisingly, that provoked national dissent that made the army’s coup politically plausible. Assad may be a bloodthirsty thug, but he’s on message, arguing that if you think he’s bad, he beats the alternatives.
Gül and Erdoğan are learning the meaning of a time-honored political term: the trick box. They helped stir up opposition to Assad without properly assessing that the familiar refrain “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” might not hold true. Assad presides over a Mafioso gang of criminal politicians who hitched their cart to Iranian and Hezbollah horses. Politics can be cruelly ironic. But a future of chaos, driven by violent Sunni extremists, is no end-state to happily contemplate.
Gül and Erdoğan are right to want strong action. The civilian deaths are a tragedy and the spread of Syria’s civil war into neighboring nations dangerously increases risks of regional conflict. But the time has come for Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Syria’s other regional neighbors to lead the way. The United States and its western allies have done a lot and they can continue to provide support. But it’s now the region’s turn to act.
James Farwell is a national security expert who has advised the Department of Defense and is author of Persuasion & Power (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012). Darby Arakelian is a former CIA Officer and a national security expert. The views expressed are those of the authors and not of the U.S. Government, or any of its agencies, departments or COCOM.