By: Alex Liao
With at least 2,000 estimated Syrian deaths resulting from the uprising against President Assad, international pressures have been mounting to try to isolate the regime and force an end to violence in Hama and in neighboring villages. Turkey, one of Syria’s neighbors and a close trade and political partner, has been leveraging its ties to pressure Syria. The two countries have a lengthy history, with brinkmanship almost resulting in a war over Kurdish militants in Syria during the late 1990s. Since then, Prime Minister Erdogan has worked to build strong ties between the nations to buttress his “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy.
While the West has orchestrated strong international calls for Syria to halt its shelling of villages near the Turkish border, alongside U.S. sanctions against the Commercial Bank of Syria and telecommunications company Syriatel, Turkey has separated itself from these calls to strike a “more optimistic” tone. In particular, Turkey has emphasized the fact that Syrian tanks have started exiting Hama to point out that their engagement, founded upon sturdy economic and diplomatic relations, has been effective. Erdogan noted that Turkey hoped to see a reform process take place within fifteen days.
Nonetheless, while striking this broad optimistic tone about its engagement efforts, Turkey has previously strongly warned Syria, with Turkish newspapers reporting that Ankara may soon end its ties with Syria to cause a “Saddam-like” isolation. It is also important to note that Turkey has, for now, viewed Syria’s actions as an internal issue due to the number of refugees fleeing across the border. Its borders and close ties to Syria have given it leverage, though Erdogan stated that “our patience is running thin,” signaling Turkey’s potential acquiescence to international measures such as sanctions. However, current Turkish policy assumes that the international measures will not escalate without Ankara’s cooperation. Hence, Turkey is currently still holding onto fragile ties with Syria, hoping that engagement will result in a democratic transition under Assad.
Thus, the Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s meeting with President Assad marked Turkey’s final call to Syria to determine Turkey’s foreign policy going forward. Although Syria refused to make concessions beforehand, and continued storming towns near the Turkish border, Davutoglu reported that “concrete steps” were discussed to avoid further confrontations between security forces and civilians and that reform is expected in the coming weeks. While Turkey waits to see the final result of its engagement efforts and whether the reform Assad promises will arrive, Syrian state-run news reported that Syria would continue to crack down on what it believes are “terrorist groups.” Therefore, renewed violence across the border is expected, and the consensus is that the Syrian regime rebuffed Davutoglu during the meeting. With more violence, reform efforts will likely not be taken seriously.
It is likely, however, that Turkey will pursue alternative forms of engagement before trying to join international isolation efforts. The violence has principally caused an exodus of Syrians across the Turkish border. Turkey worries that the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which has launched terrorist attacks inside Turkey, could exploit the border crossing to send fighters into Turkey. Thus, Turkey’s primary goal is to contain the situation within Syria to stop the violence from overflowing inside its borders. It has mentioned the possibility of a buffer zone in Syria, which would involve military forces but avoid a direct military confrontation. The buffer zone would help manage refugees by providing humanitarian aid, and Turkey tried this option before in Iraq when Saddam persecuted Iraqi Kurds. With escalating tensions across the border, the buffer zone may then be the best option to avoid violence spreading into Turkey and to uphold the AKP’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy.
On a regional level, the tensions have cracked Turkey’s foreign policy. Iran and Syria have long supported each other with alliances against Israel and support for Hizballah and Hamas. In turn, Turkey and Iran have formed closer trade ties, and Turkey has even considered military cooperation against the PKK. Abandoning the Assad regime, then, would cause Turkey to be seen as an “ally of the West” by Iran since both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have openly denounced Syria. Turkey, in an effort to avoid this, has not openly abandoned Assad and will perhaps continue to wait for reforms instead of risking another close trade partner. Indeed, Turkish officials have noted that Iran has stopped criticizing Turkey’s anti-Syrian positions since the Davutoglu meeting. Most indications are that Turkish-Iranian relations will survive, as even Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will choose to privately abandon Syria if it feels that Assad’s regime has lost all leverage. Their shared interests, particularly their trade ties and cooperation against Kurdish separatists, will form the basis for their future cooperation and relations.
On the other end, the United States is likewise concerned about Turkey’s relations with Iran. It has warned Turkish officials and businesses about the loss of access to American markets if economic relations with Iran continue to build up. Both the United States and the EU have been pressuring Turkey to take tougher stances on Iran, and will likely do so even more as Iran has been providing economic support to Syria. However, Turkey is expected to ignore these pressures and pave its own foreign policy for two reasons. First, on an ideological level, the ruling AKP party in Ankara has a strong religiously conservative bloc which will continue to push for ties with Iran and Muslim countries in general. Second, on a pragmatic level, Turkey depends on Iran for a third of its natural gas imports, and bilateral trade has helped support the economy during the recession. Turkish businesses that operate in Iran also are among the top supporters of the AKP. Thus, Erdogan is likely to yield to these pressures and continue to ignore Western pressures unless violence in Syria seriously threatens to overflow and threaten Turkey’s regional interests. In this scenario, Western governments would be expected to directly block Iranian ties with Turkey, especially in the financial sector as it has done with Iran’s relations with the UAE and India, forcing Turkey to join or lead international, Western-backed efforts.
Most recently, reports from Syria indicate an expanding level of repression, with tanks and gunmen moving on Latakia and Qusair. This is seen as a response to the crowds that have formed in anger against the regime in several cities. With conflict escalating and hopes of engagement thinning out, Turkey may even consider leading an international intervention effort. Of course, this would most likely take place after sanctions efforts and a period of intense international pressure led or joined by Turkey. Nevertheless, Turkish government officials have been sure to emphasize that they have not ruled out an international intervention. Specifically, the Turkish army has additionally summoned hundreds of officers for reserve duty near the Syrian border to prepare for refugees and possible NATO strikes in the future. Therefore, this option is a distinct reality, though an unlikely one at this point in time.
In this way, Turkey remains committed to its foreign policy – one that is neither staunchly Western or anti-Western. It will continue pursuing engagement to maintain its trade ties in the region, and only when all engagement efforts and alternatives are exhausted will it choose to lead international isolation initiatives. If these efforts lead to intensified violence which Ankara believes may spillover, it may then plan an international intervention with NATO. Turkey realizes that isolating the Assad regime may well escalate tensions with Syria and Iran, without producing substantive reforms or reduction in violence. Although Turkey is holding back from leading international efforts against Syria, it is doing so to uphold peace in the region. If its engagement proves to be successful, then the West will have less to worry and Turkey will retain its economic and political prowess. If not, then regional turmoil is likely as Turkey works to balance between its economic and security interests at home and broader political interests in the West.
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