Turkey's Inevitable Problems With Neighbors
Syrian President Bashar al Assad delivered a long and uneventful speech Monday, during which he basically divided Syria's protest society into three categories: the good, the criminal and the Salafi. Assad claimed that instability caused by the latter two was to blame for the delay in implementing reforms. Rather than promising concrete reforms that have been strongly urged by the Turks, the Syrian president emphasized that security had to come first, while trying to present himself as a neutral mediator between the population and security forces. Not surprisingly, the speech fell on deaf ears throughout Syria, but also in Ankara, where the government let its growing impatience show and told the Syrian president once again that he isn't doing enough to satisfy the demands of his people.
With more than 10,000 Syrian refugees spilling across the Turkish border to escape the army's siege, the situation in Syria is undoubtedly growing desperate. However, we have not yet seen the red flags that would indicate the al Assad regime is in imminent danger of collapse. The reasons are fairly straightforward. The al Assad clan belongs to Syria's Alawite minority, who only 40 years ago were living under the thumb of the country's majority Sunni population. Four decades in power is not a long time, and vengeance is a powerful force in this part of the world. The Alawites understand that they face an existential crisis, and if they allow their grip over the Baath-dominated political system - and most importantly the military - to loosen even slightly, they will likely become the prime targets of a Sunni vendetta campaign aiming to return the Alawites to their subservient status. This may explain why al Assad felt the need to stress in his speech that his minority government would not take "revenge" against those who stand down from their protests.
Turkey is understandably nervous about what is happening next door in Syria. Ankara would prefer a Syria ruled by a stable Sunni regime, especially one that would look to Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for political guidance. However, the Turks can see that Alawite leadership will not leave power without a long and bloody fight. Recreating a sphere of Turkish-modeled Sunni influence in the Levant may be a long-term goal for Ankara, but the Turkish government is certainly not prepared to pay the near-term cost of civil strife in Syria spilling across Turkish borders.
Turkey has so far addressed this dilemma mainly through rhetoric, issuing angry speeches against Syrian leadership, while floating the idea of a military buffer zone for Syrian refugees. For awhile, assuming the role of regional disciplinarian played well to an AKP public-relations strategy that portrayed Turkey as the model for the Arab Spring and the go-to mediator for the Mideast's problems. But the more Syria destabilizes - and with each time it ignores Ankara's demands - the more Turkey risks appearing impotent.
The crisis in Syria will likely lead to a recalibration of Turkish foreign policy. The architect of Turkey's foreign policy, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, coined the phrase "zero problems with neighbors" to describe the guiding principle of Turkey's interactions with surrounding regimes. Turkey obviously has a problem with Syria's leadership, and not a small one. It is becoming increasingly apparent that Turkey may not yet have what it takes to deal with Syria, beyond issuing rhetorical censures. Establishing a military buffer zone as a safe haven for Syrian refugees not only would call for an international mandate, but would entail Turkish troops occupying foreign land - which would likely set off alarm bells among Arabs who already suspect Turkey of harboring a so-called neo-Ottoman agenda. Turkey's ardent support for Libyan rebels against Moammar Gadhafi and public backing for Syrian opposition forces have already unnerved Arab monarchist regimes that are trying to undermine the effects of the Arab Spring and are growing distrustful of Turkish intentions.
Moreover, any move construed as Turkey trying to facilitate the downfall of the al Assad regime would undoubtedly create problems with Iran, a neighbor Turkey has taken great care to avoid aggravating. Iran relies heavily on the Alawite regime in Syria to maintain a foothold in the Levant through groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Since the return of Syria to Sunni control would unravel a key pillar of Iranian deterrent strategy, we can expect that Iran is doing everything possible to undermine the very Syrian opposition forces looking to Ankara for support. Turkey has avoided confrontation with Iran thus far while working quietly to build a Sunni counterbalance to Iranian-backed Shia in Iraq in the face of an impending U.S. withdrawal. A power vacuum in Syria filled by Turkish-backed Sunnis would reinforce a nascent confrontation between Iran and Turkey with deep geopolitical underpinnings.
Nations do not have friends; they have interests. And Turkey, an historically influential country sitting on one of the most geopolitically complex pieces of real estate in the world, is now finding that a foreign policy built on avoiding problems with neighbors grinds against reality. In STRATFOR's view, this was inevitable, which is why we took interest in Monday's issue of Today's Zaman, an English-language outlet loyal to the movement of Fethullah Gulen and strongly supportive of the ruling AKP. Two editorials in Monday's publication held that the Syrian crisis has exposed the coming demise of Turkey's "zero problems with neighbors" policy.
That this idea is being introduced into the public discourse is revealing, not only of Turkey's internal debate on this issue, but also of the message that Ankara may be trying to send to the United States and others: It needs time to develop the wherewithal to meaningfully influence its neighborhood. The United States wants Turkey to help shoulder the burden of managing the Middle East as it looks to extricate its military from Iraq. Washington especially needs to develop a strong counterbalance to Iran - a role historically filled by Turkey. This obviously presents a conflict of interests: Washington is trying to push Turkey into a role it's not quite ready for; meanwhile, Turkey is trying to sort out its growing pains while appearing influential abroad.
Turkey's evolution will be difficult and uncomfortable, but this should not come as a surprise. "Zero problems with neighbors" worked well for Turkey at the start of the century, as it came out of its domestic shell, yet took care to avoid being seen as a resurgent power with imperial interests. After a decade of regional conflict, Turkey is finding that problems with neighbors are not only unavoidable, but may even be necessary as the Turkish state redefines its core interests.