Why Turkey Holds the Key to the Regional Power Game on Syria

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People take part in a demonstration gathering activists, including Syrians living in Turkey, opposed to Syria's regime of President Bashar al-Assad on August 7, 2011 in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul. (Photo: Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images)

As the Assad regime on Sunday escalated its brutal crackdown by sending gunboats to shell the coastal city of Latakia, yet the rebellion shows no sign of abating despite at least 1,700 deaths so far, Syria’s fate may come to rest less in the hands of its own people, than in the corridors of power in neighboring and more distant capitals.

If all politics is local, all geopolitics is inevitably regional, civil conflicts often echoing conflicts among a country’s neighbors and requiring that those conflicts be addressed. The U.S. won’t leave behind a modicum of stability in Afghanistan unless India, Pakistan, Iran and Russia can  agree on rules for managing Afghan conflicts; failing that, those countries will pursue their interests through local proxies in a civil war — as some of them are already doing. Iraq, too, is already a proxy battleground for regional hegemons Iran and Saudi Arabia, and avoiding a full-blown civil war when the U.S. departs is a regional challenge. The same logic applies increasingly to Syria, whose uprising has made it the focus of a complicated regional power game involving not only the usual suspects — Iran and Saudi Arabia — but also Turkey.

Turkey and Iran are Syria’s key foreign allies, but they have very different relationships with Damascus — Tehran’s being a long-established strategic alliance, while Ankara’s is based on having lately emerged as the key source of trade and investment critical to Syria’s prospects — and very different ideas on how the Assad regime should deal with the political crisis. And even while Turkey has distanced itself from the U.S. strategy of isolating and pressuring Iran over its nuclear program, Tehran and Ankara are also rivals for influence in the wider Middle East. Saudi Arabia is also a substantial patron of the Assad regime, and no fan of Arab democracy in principle, but it would dearly love to move Syria out of Iran’s strategic orbit. Viewed from that perspective, there’s no contradiction between Riyadh authoring a harsh crackdown on democracy protests in Bahrain, and then condemning Assad’s own crackdown: Bahrain’s protestors were Shi’ites, after all, and therefore deemed by the Saudis to be illegitimate claimants of political power and a proxy for Iran; Syria’s protestors are Sunnis, like the Saudis themselves, while the Assad regime is based on the Allawite minority, a spin-off of Shi’ism.

Turkey, of course, is in neither camp, basing its foreign policy on the principle of resolving conflicts by integrating all key players into new and more equitable arrangements that take into account the vital interests of all stakeholders to ensure stability.

The current Turkish government sees itself as a bridge between the West and the Arab world, and even between the West and Iran. And it is also as a supporter of Arab democracy and the principle that conflicts must be resolved by political solutions that reflect the popular will. In Libya, despite its longstanding relationships with Colonel Gaddafi, it has pressed for a democratic political solution, remaining actively engaged with and support of the Benghazi-based opposition at the same time as maintaining its good offices with the regime. It has done the same with Syria, urging the regime to make democratic reforms, and criticizing the use of force against demonstrators — and allow Syrian opposition groups to use Istanbul as a base from which to try and organize themselves.

As the use of military force against protestors has escalated, Turkish leaders have been more bluntly critical, and have taken to warning Assad — as during last week’s visit by foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu — that it should his repression continue, he can’t count on Turkey’s friendship in the event of international military action. Davutoglu, of course, had been the architect of the new Turkish foreign policy he dubbed “zero problems with neighbors” — a policy that has given Washington major geopolitical headaches, as it repudiated the U.S. approach of dividing the region in a zero-sum conflict between moderates aligned with Washington and Israel, and radicals aligned with Iran. Instead, “zero problems with neighbors” meant building bridges. But Syria’s crackdown on its restive citizenry has turned into a very big problem for Turkey with its neighbor.

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is arguably more responsive to domestic public opinion than any in Turkey’s history, and just as Turks were outraged at images of Israel pulverizing Gaza in early 2009, so have they been outraged at the spectacle at the Sunni civilian population across the border being shot and shelled for having the temerity to challenge the Assad regime, whose sectarianizing of the conflict also turns the predominantly Sunni Turkish public against Damascus. Then again, Turkey’s Alevi sect, that accounts for about 20% of the countries Muslims, has a close affinity with Syria’s ruling Allawites. Turkey’s interests are arguably less sectarian, in nature, than anti-sectarian.

Then, there’s the fact that some 10,000 Syrian refugees from Assad’s crackdown have already flooded into Turkey, and more would surely follow if the Syrian military allowed them to flee. That prompted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to deem Syria a domestic issue, rather than simply a foreign policy challenge for Turkey.

But while Turkey insists that the Syrian protests are a popular movement that require engagement and reforms by the regime, Iran embraces Assad’s narrative that the protests are a product of Western or Israeli (or Saudi, although that’s rarely said) scheming. Iran has reportedly delivered $5 billion in emergency aid to shore up the Assad regime (and by some accounts has pressed its allies in Iraq to do the same). Rumours that Syria’s military is being coached by the Iranians, however, seem farfetched — or part of a propaganda effort to paint Iran as the fount of all evil. Syria has plenty of experience deploying military force against its own citizenry, and its direct military assaults on opposition strongholds make Iran’s 2009 post-election crackdown look kid-gloved by comparison.

Whereas Iran and Syria are long-time strategic allies, the support of Turkey — a genuinely independent and indisputably powerful neighbor, being the second-largest army in NATO — may be the key political prize in play among the various regional stakeholders at this stage of the Syria conflict. And Assad’s refusal to heed its calls for an end to violence and for political reform are pushing Turkey closer to the Western powers and Saudi Arabia on this one. Turkey fears Syria being turned into another sectarian quagmire on the same lines as Iraq, but it’s not following the line of its BRIC allies — Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa — at the U.N. by simply opposing any move towards intervention. While it certainly opposes any armed intervention, Turkey believes that it is Assad’s defiance that represents the greatest danger of an Iraq-style debacle right now.

Some analysts suggest there’s already a tacit agreement among U.S. and Saudis that Turkey will take the lead in shaping any international response to the Syria crisis. The Israeli media has suggested that some in Washington see the breakdown between Turkey and Iran over Syria as an opportunity to draw Ankara back into the U.S.-Israeli camp on dealing with Iran. But that may be a little shortsighted. Firstly, Iran’s commitment to Assad’s strategy is not necessarily absolute. Israel-based Iran analyst Meir Javedanfar argues that if it became clear that Assad’s regime was untenable, Tehran might abandon it and hope to secure some sort of relationship with any successor regime in Syria.

And while Syria offers Iran its one solid foothold in the Arab world, Tehran needs Turkey’s friendship just as much — if not more so, because of Turkey’s staunch opposition to Washington’s approach to dealing with the nuclear issue. Indeed, Iran reports an 80% increase in trade with Turkey over the first half of 2011 compared with the corresponding period for last year, despite U.S.-led efforts to isolate Iran’s economy.

Even if the Syria crisis has strained relations between Turkey and Iran, it’s important to remember that Turkey’s break with the U.S. on how to handle the Iranian nuclear file were not based on some ideological affinity with Tehran, or readiness to accept it achieving nuclear-weapons status; on the contrary, Ankara broke away from a U.S. strategy it believes is failing, and is more likely to plunge the region into a disastrous conflict than to promote stability. That’s unlikely to change regardless of what becomes of Assad. But the same concern to prevent a disastrous regional conflict will likely prompt Turkey to raise pressure on Damascus in the coming days and weeks regardless of Iran’s preferences.