Turkey Can't Afford Over-Involvement in Syria

By Mohammed Ayoob

Since 2002, Turkey's leaders have basked in the glow of their rising profile in the Middle East and Europe. During the past decade Turkey has transformed into the world's16th largest economy, tripling per capita income. Turkey's pro-Palestinian stand and support for democratic movements in the Arab world have earned Prime Minister Recep TayyipErdoğanplaudits on the Arab street. Europe and the US, initially uneasy at Turkey's growing intimacy with its Muslim neighbors, have more recently hailed Ankara's role as the spearhead of the international effort to bring down the pro-Iranian Syrian regime. But amidst the applause, or even because of it, Turkey may be sliding into perilous territory as the Assad regime teeters and Syria appears headed towards anarchy rather than democratic transformation.

Turkey emerged as a major regional player, one that serves as an example, perhaps even political model, for Arab neighbors to the east by combining the values of a secular state - a Muslim, if not Islamic, society - and increasing civilian control over the military. Ankara's stock in the Arab world rose between 2009 and 2011 because of its strong stance against Israeli occupation of Palestine and Israel's blockade of Gaza. Moreover, despite some ups and downs, Turkey has juggled its new foreign-policy initiatives in the Middle East, maintaining its traditional security ties through NATO with the United States and Europe.

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The Arab Spring, which began with Ben Ali's overthrow in Tunisia in December 2010 and picked up steam with the ouster of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak in January 2011, has been a mixed blessing for Turkey. On the one hand, it enhanced the popularity of the Turkish model among the Arab publics. On the other, it posed painful choices for Ankara between its newfound, often authoritarian, friends in the Middle East and the democratic aspirations of Arab peoples, inspired in part by the success of Turkish democracy.

In this context, 2012 has been a momentous year for Turkish foreign policy. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's conception of "zero problems with neighbors," an essential component of Turkish foreign-policy activism in the Middle East, has been tested, especially in relation to Turkey's approach to Syria. Antagonistic relations between Ankara and Damascus have also had negative repercussions on Turkey's relations with Iran. On the positive side, Turkey's relations with the West and the United States have improved as compared to the 2009-11 period as Turkey's policies coincided with those of the US and Europe vis-à-vis Syria and, therefore, indirectly vis-à-vis Iran.

In fact, Turkey has plowed ahead of its western allies on this issue by acting as the spearhead of political and military support for opponents of the Assad regime. This has allayed fears in western capitals that Turkey's improved relations with Muslim neighbors to the east, some now in danger of being reversed, were taking place at the expense of Ankara's traditional ties with the United States and Europe. This perception had been augmented in the West by Turkey's deteriorating relations with Israel following the latter's brutal December 2008 invasion of Gaza and the subsequent May 2010 killing of nine Turks, including an American citizen, aboard the Mavi Marmara in international waters by Israeli commandos.

Needless to say, this negative perception of Turkey was deliberately propagated by parties in the United States that would like to use Turkey's relations with Israel as the yardstick for judging Ankara's relations with Washington. Ankara's decision to vote against the latest round of western-inspired economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council on Iran in 2010 further augmented negative perceptions in Washington, where the complex nature of Turkey's relations with Iran, including its energy dependence and geographic proximity, was either not recognized or ignored. Iran is the second largest exporter of natural gas to Turkey, explaining why Ankara has attempted to circumvent American-imposed sanctions on bank transactions with Iran by paying Tehran in gold bullion.

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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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