Turkey’s Syria conundrum

Sinan Ulgen writes: Syria used to be the poster child for Ankara’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy. At the peak of their rapprochement, Turkey and Syria were holding joint cabinet meetings and talking about spearheading a common market in the Middle East. Then the Arab wave of reforms reached Damascus. The relationship turned hostile as the Syrian leadership resisted reforms and engaged in large-scale massacres to subdue the opposition.

With the support of Prime Minister Erdogan, Turkey’s foreign minister Davutoglu positioned Ankara in the vanguard of the community of nations seeking regime change in Syria. Thus Ankara gave support to the Syrian National Council and harbored the Free Syrian Army. Even when former UN secretary-general Annan’s plan for a political settlement was announced, the Turkish leadership made it clear that there could be no solution with Assad in power.

With this policy of direct confrontation, Ankara not only strove to obtain the moral high ground. It also sought to precipitate the fall of Assad while building a relationship with the future leadership of Syria by heavily investing in the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council.

Today, this policy of forcefully pushing the regime change agenda in Syria is under criticism domestically as some of the risks of a post-Assad world are becoming clearer.

The fear in Turkey is of Syria’s disintegration into ethnically and religiously purer ministates, with a Kurdish entity in the north, an Alawite entity in the west and a Sunni entity in the rest. The Kurdish opposition’s recent unilateral power grab in northeastern Syria rekindled Turkish concerns about the emergence of an independent Kurdish entity linking the north of Iraq to the north of Syria.

The right policy response to this threat would certainly have been for the Turkish body politic to finally and permanently address Turkey’s own Kurdish problem. But the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leadership’s prevailing populist tendencies seem to preclude this option despite a well-intentioned effort undertaken before the 2011 elections. The fact that even the highly popular AKP, facing no imminent threat to its rule, backed away from tackling this complex issue does not bode well for the prospects of a lasting settlement. [Continue reading…]

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