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NİHAT ALİ ÖZCAN > Erdoğan’s Russia visit and the Syria issue

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Information about and comments on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Russia have been debated in the media. One of the reasons this visit is so important is Russia and Turkey opposing policies on Syria. Sharing their views on Syria will force both sides to make important decisions. In light of what he learns on this visit, Erdoğan will make significant decisions about his Syria policy.

The prediction that Russia will not change its approach towards Syria and will not support Erdoğan will not be an overstatement, because there are various reasons behind Russia’s support for [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad’s regime. These reasons are ideological, geopolitical, economic, military, and psychological. Thus, it is not possible for Russia to change its position, at least for now.

Besides, there is no alternative for the EU, NATO and the U.S. except to give “strong explanations.” They have been advising al-Assad to leave his position of power, which has not been convincing enough, because the EU is struggling with an economic crisis, NATO has serious problems in Afghanistan, and the U.S. is an election period. All in all, there is neither money nor public support for removing al-Assad from power by force. This situation brings up the question “What can Turkey do?” The critical impact of this Russia visit will lead Turkey in shaping its decision.

It will be no surprise for Erdoğan to realize that Turkey will be left alone in the coming days. What’s more, while Syria’s domestic dispute continues, Turkey will have to face both domestic and international problems.

At this point, there are three alternatives for Turkey. The first is to lead a military intervention. The second is to strengthen and develop indirect interference. The third is to remove the Syrian issue from the public and government agenda.

For now, there is no provision for a direct military intervention. There is neither the public nor international support to legitimize it. There are also powerful opposing forces such as Russia and Iran. This option would also be expensive in financial and military terms. Intervening in a country involved in an ongoing civil war, and that has chemical weapons, that has unidentified interfering groups, an unclear front line, and political aims of its own, is the last option to consider. Furthermore, it is not known how long this period will continue.

Another possibility is Turkey’s increasing support to the Syrian groups leading the uprising against the al-Assad regime. It could work in three ways: by recruiting new militants, by providing logistics support and by acting as a safe haven. Although this road has been chosen, it cannot be predicted how long this revolt or civil war will continue, or what impact would it will have on Turkish domestic politics, especially in the areas of security, economics and diplomacy. Dealing with the cost of it will not be easy either.

The last possibility is Turkey’s removing Syria issue from the agenda and taking a step back. It would be a deep disappointment for Erdoğan to see that he is left alone because of his Western allies’ passive and unclear attitudes. As a result, he may begin to behave similarly to them. For example, he may send “strong messages” to al-Assad.

The visit to Russia will be a turning point for Erdoğan’s decision on how to handle Syria. We will soon see which scenario he will choose.

July/19/2012

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