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Aug 7, 2012 | 11:00 GMT

5 mins read

Turkey's Cautious Approach to Syria

Turkey's Cautious Approach to Syria

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, in northern Iraq on Aug. 1. Their meeting was one of many diplomatic meetings and visits in the wider region regarding the conflict in Syria. Much attention is focused on Turkey in anticipation of a transition in Syria. But so far, Ankara has resisted pressure to expand its involvement in the Syrian conflict. Facing a litany of risks domestically and regionally, Turkey has pursued a pragmatic and cautious foreign policy, working with proxies and resisting pressure for direct military involvement. Although this strategy makes sense given the pressures and limits Turkey is facing, the many groups and governments across the region whose expectations of Turkey have grown in recent years will be disappointed.

Turkey is on the cusp of becoming a regional power. The Syrian crisis has created an opening for Ankara to expand its influence into Syria and perhaps even into Iraq, both at Iran's expense

Southeastern Turkey's Border Region

Southeastern Turkey's Border Region

Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Barack Obama discussed ways to accelerate the removal of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Ankara has hinted that it would be willing to insert forces in Syria to create a buffer zone, ostensibly to help refugees fleeing regime forces. But Turkey has said it will do so only with help from the international community, in this case from NATO. Ankara even turned to NATO when Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance plane in late June. However, NATO has had no appetite for military intervention in Syria. 

Despite its trepidations, Turkey already has played an active role in the Syrian crisis. It has supported Syrian rebels since the start of the conflict and has served as the main sanctuary and hub outside the conflict zone for the rebel Free Syrian Army. Turkey has denied supplying weapons, however. It also reportedly has opened a logistical and operations hub in cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the southeastern Turkish city of Adana. 

Obstacles to Direct Involvement

Turkey has held back on direct involvement, which would be risky on several fronts. Turkey cannot go into northern Syria against the Kurds without getting bogged down in the larger Syrian conflict. Rather than move against separatist Syrian Kurds, Ankara has relied on Barzani in northern Iraq. Ankara also is leaning heavily on its main ally on the Syrian National Council, Abdulbaset Sieda, to reach out to fellow Syrian Kurds to rein in Turkey's own militant Kurdistan Workers' Party, known by the Kurdish acronym PKK.

Military intervention would also likely provoke the Iranians, who are desperate to salvage their influence in Damascus. Tehran has issued vague threats of repercussions should Turkey intervene more formally in Syria. Were Turkey to intervene, it could find itself in conflict with Iran's allies in the Levant in addition to battling Syria's Kurds and jihadist elements.

And intervention is widely unpopular in Turkey. The Turkish media have portrayed any intervention as doing the United States' bidding, something of which the government certainly does not want to be accused. Opposition groups, from the smaller ultranationalist to the main opposition party to the pro-Kurdish party, already are trying to exploit the ruling Justice and Development Party's handling of Syria in general and the Kurdish issue in particular. Indeed, opposition reports and rumors in Turkey suggest Davutoglu will soon be replaced as foreign minister because of his handling of the Syrian situation. 

Economic questions also demand a cautious approach. The ruling party does not want to risk involvement in an unpopular conflict when potential economic problems could already threaten the ruling party.

Finally, a leadership transition is under way in the ruling party as it seeks to position itself for an attempt to change the Turkish political system from a parliamentary to a presidential or semi-presidential one. Maintaining the party's domestic popularity is key to both efforts. 

However, Turkey's ruling party may be prepping its domestic constituencies for expanded involvement. Turkey has seen a steady stream of news reports on the threat posed by separatist Syrian Kurds and on their relationship with the PKK. While regional attention has been focused on military activities in Syria, Ankara has been embroiled in a hard-fought campaign in Turkey's southeastern province of Hakkari on its border with Iran and Iraq. This past weekend, eight soldiers and more than 100 militants died and at least 1,000 villagers evacuated the province.  

Still, Ankara may not be confident that the military would be on board with an intervention in Syria. Moreover, it does not want to put the armed forces in the lead over so controversial a subject. After all, the Justice and Development Party has spent the last decade reducing the role of the Turkish military in domestic affairs.

The Price of Caution

Though Turkey has slowly increased its visibility and role in the Middle East in recent years as it transitions to becoming a regional power, it is not yet able to shape or control events in the region. Instead, it has sought small and strategic relationships with regional players, both governments and smaller, non-state actors.

It may be keeping its options open while it watches Syria's other stakeholders jockey for position, namely Iran, Russia, the United States, France, Qatar, Israel, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia — a country Turkey does not want a break with but does not want to see emerge as the main beneficiary of the Syrian collapse. (Riyadh is involved in a hostile rivalry with Tehran and has been backing rebels and jihadist groups in the Syrian rebellion.)

But Turkey's strategic pragmatism will come with a cost. High regional expectations of Turkish leadership would go unfulfilled. Thus, Turkey will not be able to fulfill regional expectations in the short term. Although Turkey has ample reason to play it safe, it risks appearing overly meek — hampering its ability to build relationships around the region and potentially benefiting its rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

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