Turkey's hard stance on Syria hides its conflicted loyalties
In a matter of months, a blink of the eye in international politics, relations between Turkey and Syria have gone from what both countries often called "two peoples, one government", to outright hostility and unprecedented rancour. What is also remarkable about this transformation is that it was not caused by one country's hostile act against the other.
The transformation occurred largely because Turkish leaders have come to the conclusion that the Baath regime in Damascus, facing a wave of protests, is incapable of implementing reforms and that Bashar Al Assad's days are numbered. Ankara, in line with conventional wisdom, calculates the longevity of the Assad regime to be between six months and two years.
The Turkish position is informed by both the momentous changes put into motion by the Arab Spring and a sense of pragmatism induced by the lessons learnt from earlier policy miscalculations, primarily in Libya. In sum, Turkish leaders have decided that Mr Al Assad is on his way out, and the sooner this takes place the better it will be for them and the region. Hence, Ankara has decided to help speed up the process of regime change, but its policy options are quite limited.
Regime change was not Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's first choice. In fact, upon assuming power, Mr Erdogan invested heavily in Syria. By his own admission, Mr Davutoglu made the country a showcase for his "zero problems with the neighbours" policy, visiting Syria about 60 times. In many ways, the turnabout in Turkish-Syrian relations had been dramatic. They had come a long way since 1998 when Turkey threatened Syria to have Mr Al Assad's father expel the Turkish Kurdish insurgent leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Mr Erdogan and the younger Al Assad since developed a close relationship that included their families.
Turkish exports mushroomed from $184 million (Dh676 million) in 2000 to $1.64 billion in 2010, or 1.6 per cent of total exports. The two countries eliminated visa requirements, signed free trade agreements and undertook investments in the energy field. Many Turkish towns adjacent to the border experienced an economic boom as a result of both increased trade and tourism.
Mr Erdogan would have much preferred for Mr Al Assad to manage a reform process that would have kept him at the helm. Relying on his personal friendship, he tried to nudge the Syrian president in that direction, dispatching his intelligence chief and Mr Davutoglu to Damascus. Refugees fleeing into Turkey from Syrian border towns subjected to Syrian military and paramilitary attacks pushed him to harden his stance. In a final effort, Mr Davutoglu was sent to see Mr Al Assad where he counselled for a ceasefire during Ramadan. Instead, the violence escalated.
Turkey, however, faces a real dilemma in Syria. On the one hand, it has become the front-line state in the opposition to Mr Al Assad. There are about 8,000 Syrian refugees camped within Turkish borders. The Syrian opposition has been given a relatively free hand to organise politically - but not militarily - on Turkish soil. All of this has once again imbued Turkey with a great deal of international importance and potentially a leadership role. Worries about the potential implosion of the Syrian regime has also led to a rapprochement between Washington and Ankara at a time when Mr Erdogan's policies on Iran and Israel had caused a great deal of consternation in the US.
On the other hand, Turkey may be unwilling to make the important sacrifices necessary to further weaken Mr Al Assad's rule in Damascus. Closing the border, imposing a trade embargo and especially arming the rebels are, understandably, difficult if not impossible choices. In Turkey's border towns, especially in Hatay province, where large numbers of Turkish Alevis - who like Syria's ruling Alawite minority are an offshoot of Shia Islam - reside, the government's Syria policy is seriously contested.
Turkish-Syrian trade association leaders in Istanbul recently told me that they opposed a trade embargo on Syria. Ankara under Mr Erdogan's AKP prioritised the export sector; already worried about its current account deficit, it cannot really afford to forsake any export market let alone one this close.
But deteriorating economic conditions will ultimately make the question of trade sanctions moot anyway. Syria is burning through its foreign exchange reserves and Turkish businessmen will find that the obstacles to trade will increase naturally. This may convince Syrian business elites to switch sides.
Even more difficult for Turkey would be the establishment of a no-fly zone over northern Syria, in a move that is reminiscent of the Iraqi no-fly zone of the 1990s. Ankara perceives such a move as a potential prelude for an armed western intervention, which it opposes. If Syrian Kurds won an Iraq-style autonomy, then Turkish Kurds who are already mobilised could feel emboldened to further challenge their own central government. There are suspicions of renewed Syrian and Iranian support for PKK violence in the southeast of the country. But this is an inconvenience rather than a threat to the Turkish government. Far more worrisome is the potential refugee influx were the Syrian crisis to transform itself into a full civil war.
Having concluded that the Assad regime is marching inexorably towards a political sunset, Ankara wants to avoid a repeat of Libya's experience. To this end, they will use every ounce of diplomatic influence they think they have to increase the pressure on Mr Al Assad.
Even if Mr Al Assad were to survive with his regime intact, however unlikely that is, the Turks have already written him off. Syria under Mr Al Assad no longer represents a land of opportunity; its economy and politics would be stuck in a stagnation similar to the Soviet Union in its fading days.
Henri J Barkey is a professor on international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania
Updated: November 21, 2011 04:00 AM