Ankara at a point of no return on Syria?
This week, among all the other developments going on around the world, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser at the White House, gave an important interview in which he laid down two “core principals” for the United States in terms of the preferred model for any future military interventions. While talking to Foreign Policy Magazine, Rhodes said that in order for the U.S. to intervene militarily, the drive first had to come from an indigenous political movement as it is “far more legitimate and effective [in allowing] regime change to be pursued.”
“Secondly,” he said, “we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the U.S. won’t be bearing the brunt of the burden” and so that there won’t just be international support for the effort, but also meaningful international contribution.
We just witnessed how these two principals were met during the Libyan intervention. First the Libyan people, starting from Benghazi, revolted and showed impeccable defiance toward dictator Moammar Gadhafi for weeks until Gadhafi threatened to start an all-out war against rebels in Benghazi and wipe them all out. The valuable contribution was provided primarily by the French and British before NATO took over the entire operation. In an unprecedented development, some other Muslim countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar also took part in the operation with their fighter jets and other sizable military contributions.
Turkey, following initial bafflement and delay, became one of the leading international actors supporting the rebels’ transition government. Fast forward to this week and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s visit to Benghazi, just one day after the rebel forces swept into Tripoli; hosting the latest Libyan contact meeting in Istanbul also boosted Turkey’s image further.
Can, then, the template elaborated by Rhodes and confirmed by Victoria Nuland, spokesperson of the U.S. State Department, be implemented for Syria? Even though the West has started calling on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down, there is no one talking about any manner of military operation yet. U.S. administration officials have so far repeated the line, “Everything is on the table,” whenever I’ve asked about it.
Ankara has not called on al-Assad to leave because it believes that, just like U.S. administration officials stated a couple of weeks ago in background talks, if it makes such a call and Damascus doesn’t take heed, Turkey will lose its leverage and room for diplomacy.
In reality, Ankara may have already passed the point of no return. Ankara either realized or is about to realize that it cannot keep issuing denunciations everyday while al-Assad responds by saying “mind your business.”
Copying the Libyan template, it can be safely argued that in Syria, too, “the buck stops with the Syrian people” before anything else. Syrians have to secure an ever-higher number of people to fill the streets so that this overwhelming majority will lead to wider international condemnation and isolation for al-Assad but also, hopefully, defections from his security and Cabinet team.
While all these upheavals are ongoing, Ankara’s friendship appears the most valuable in Washington, one that reminds us almost of the Cold War.
Cross-border operations into northern Iraq, once a source of great contention between Ankara and Washington, are now strongly backed by Washington. The U.S. administration also leaves the problems with Turkey’s freedom of press issues to its NGOs to handle.
During the Cold War, Washington backed the powerful Turkish military and bureaucracy elite for decades while Turkey was strongly pushing back the Soviets.
Now, Washington supports Turkey’s powerful Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and conservative establishment, because it knows that there is no viable opposition in sight and the Turkish military is completely under civilian control.
Washington appears to be favoring Turkey’s stability and seeking to promote its ties with the AKP while rushing to shape several transitions in other parts of the Middle East.
Taking the side of the mighty is just some of the smart politics Washington pursues. And there is nothing wrong with that.