Turkey Can't Afford Over-Involvement in Syria

By Mohammed Ayoob
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In the final analysis, Turkey's improved relations with the West in 2012, including the American decision to deploy two Patriot missile batteries to Turkey's border with Syria, are unlikely to compensate for problems Turkey faces to its east - problems likely to become more acute in 2013 if Ankara does not rapidly reevaluate its policy. With the Syrian stalemate unlikely to be broken in the immediate future, Turkey could anticipate low-intensity warfare with the Syrian regime for a considerable period, thus draining its resources and upsetting economic prospects in the long run.

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If the Assad regime falls, Turkey could face partition of Syria into several ethnic and sectarian-based statelets, including a Kurdish one on Turkey's borders that could stoke Kurdish irredentism in the country. Such an outcome would likely include a continuing civil war of horrific proportions among sectarian and ethnic groups much as has happened in Afghanistan since the Soviet withdrawal and the fall of the communist regime.

There is attendant danger that, in this event, foreign backers of the Syrian opposition, especially the United States and Saudi Arabia, would pull out and leave Syria to its fate as happened with Afghanistan in the 1990s. These powers have their own agendas related more to weakening Iran than democracy promotion in Syria, objectives achieved with the fall of Assad regardless of what happens to the Syrian people. Turkey, like Pakistan in the 1990s in relation to Afghanistan, would be left to deal with the Syrian mess alone. If anarchy and terrorism come to prevail in Syria in the wake of Assad's fall, as they're likely to do given the country's sectarian divisions and the role of militant jihadists in the war, Turkey is likely to see marked increase in Kurdish terrorism and in the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Alevis. Despite differences, Turkish Alevis empathize with Syrian Alawites because of similar nomenclature and, more importantly, fears of domination by the Sunni majority in both states.

This is a major reason why Ankara should rethink its policy of involvement in the Syrian imbroglio. As time goes on, it will become difficult for Turkey to pull away from the Syrian quagmire.Another reason is the negative effect Turkey's current stance has had on its relations with Iran, the pivotal power in the Persian Gulf region just as Turkey is in the eastern Mediterranean including the Levant. Turkey's potential conflict of interest with Iran in Iraq, given Iranian support for the Shia-dominated government and Turkey's sympathy for the predominantly Sunni Iraqi opposition, has already muddied waters in terms of Ankara's relations with Tehran. Adding Syria to this list could strain the relationship beyond repair.

This may suit the interests of certain parties that would like to see conflict prevail between the two most important powers in the Middle East, but does not bode well for regional security and stability, which can only be guaranteed by a smooth working relationship between Ankara and Tehran. From hindsight, it appears that Davutoğlu was fully aware that good relations with Iran formed the kingpin of his "zero problems with neighbors" policy. One hopes that he'll have the political courage to return to the initial intent of this policy in 2013. No matter what happens, Turkey is likely to find itself in rougher regional and international waters in 2013 than it's been accustomed to in recent years. The Turkish leadership must muster all of its political wisdom and courage, changing course on Syria if necessary, to extricate itself from the looming predicament.

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Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations, Michigan State University, and adjunct scholar with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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