How Turkey’s Syria policy evolved

How Turkey’s Syria policy evolved

Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, during his testimony on Syria at the U.S. Senate this week, summarized Turkey’s contribution to the events in Syria in three points: Sheltering refugees, opening up a space for Syrian oppositions to organize and imposing arms embargo on the Syrian regime. Luke Bronin, deputy assistant secretary at Department of Treasury, at the same panel, stated, ”it is hard to overstate Turkey’s break with Syria.” Both officials compared Ankara’s close relations with Damascus only a year ago with today and appeared as if they were explaining a miracle taking place and they are certainly not alone.

One senior official from Ankara this week gave detailed account about how Turkey’s Syrian policy evolved over the summer. According to this official, “pursuing realist policy to protect our economic interests in Syria was one of the options. But we quickly brushed aside this option as we thought such policy only give more room to Assad to increase his pressure, possibly kill or torture many more people. In such a turn of events, we might have ended up facing with 300 to 500 thousand people in our borders as refugees.”
Following Davutoglu’s visit to Damascus in August, Ankara realized Assad has no intention to reform and it began its tough stance against him by blending moral concerns with realism while dealing with the situation next door.

According to this top official, Ankara came to a conclusion that as democracy is spreading around its neighborhood, Turkey only benefits from it. Countries like Bulgaria, Romania and Georgia are testament to this reality when we look at the great relations Turkey is having with these countries when compared with the past. “Just like domino theory” said the official, following a chuckle, “we see democracy as an unstoppable force of history and we arrived at its doorstep.”

Ankara also doesn’t understand why some people in the West were so taken aback by strong Islamist showings as alternative governments going forward. The dictators in those countries didn’t really allow liberal or other parties to flourish. It was only Islamists who were able to stay organized because they were able to gather five times a day

Ankara thinks its past relations with dictators now changed because people in these countries demand their freedom, protest for their rights. This erodes these regimes legitimacy greatly. Ankara wants to actively support human rights causes but at the same time maximize its economic interests. And it constantly seeks ways to meet with these two objectives at an optimal point.

The reason for Ankara to hold back on the economic sanctions currently is because there are just too many unknowns in the Syrian equation. The U.N. Security Council has not moved since the last attempt for sanctions on Assad was derailed by Russia and China. Arab League will go to another emergency meeting Nov. 12 and things there appear uncertain at best. The Syrian opposition very much fragmented. The U.S. is also not making a lot of effort. “Turkey simply can’t gamble in this environment,” the official concluded.

Currently, Ankara is taking its time and waiting for international community to come forward before it takes further steps.

Feltman said when we look at how far we came in recent weeks with regard to Syria, “I can basically say Assad is finished.” Feltman, for the first time, publicly mentioned there is the idea floating around of organizing an international contact group for Syria, one similarly and successfully done in the Libya case.

Turkey must lead such international gatherings to accelerate the transition in Syria. All indications show we are getting closer by day to that point and this time Turkey cannot excuse itself from leading.