Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Tuesday traveled to Damascus where he met with Syrian President Bashar al Assad and other senior officials. The purpose of Davutoglu's visit was to try and convince the Syrian government to end its use of force. Some 1,600 people have died since protests broke out in the country five months ago. According to press statements issued after the Aug. 9 meetings, Ankara will monitor the behavior of the Syrian regime in the coming days. Syria said that while it would never cease to go after groups trying to destabilize the country, Damascus is open to any help offered by friendly and brotherly states.
This last statement clearly shows that Ankara did not simply pressure the Syrians to end the violence. Rather, it used the meetings to try to guide Damascus toward a formula whereby the unrest can be defused. That said, Turkey is under no illusions about Syria's ability to deftly handle the crisis. Ankara simply has no choice if it does not want to see the Syrian state collapse.
However, it is not as if the Turks are forced to work with the Syrians. In fact, the reverse may be just as true. Unable to quell the agitation, the al Assad regime keeps killing more of its people on a daily basis, thus facing growing international isolation. In these circumstances, the Syrians need to be sure that Turkey - a key neighbor and regional player with close ties to the West - does not turn against them.
In essence, the Syrians need Turkish help to find a political arrangement whereby the public uprising can be defused, and the regime can maintain its hold on power. The details of such a plan remain opaque, given the obvious sensitivity of the situation. More importantly, however, there are serious questions about Ankara's ability to help Damascus avoid an eventual collapse.
These questions are partly due to the nature of the Syrian regime, and partly because of the difficulty of reaching a settlement that could placate the masses and avoid a messy transition. Regardless of the outcome of the crisis, Turkey will see its influence in Syria increase. Ankara wants to emerge as the preeminent power in the Middle East and the two neighbors share a long border. Turkey will eventually have a disproportionate amount of influence in Syrian affairs.
Before that happens, Turkey will find itself struggling with Iran over the future of Syria. The Syrian regime is the only ally that Tehran has in the Arab world and Damascus is key to Irans ability to project power in the region. This pivotal relationship becomes especially critical at a time when the Islamic Republic is trying to take advantage of a historic opportunity to emerge as a regional power. Therefore, the Iranians have more of an incentive to ensure the survival of the Syrian state than the Turks.
Both Turkey and Iran are key stake-holders in Syria, with differing views on how to deal with the Syrian crisis. Ankara and Tehran already have a complex relationship involving a mix of cooperation and competition vis--vis Iraq. However, it now seems that Syria will become the main arena for Turkish-Iranian dealings, foretelling some pretty tense moments in the days ahead.