Turkey’s ‘Mission Impossible’

Turkey’s ‘Mission Impossible’

U.S. President Barack Obama thanked Turkey for its support in Afghanistan and Libya when he met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his last visit to the United States. Then, it seems that Obama focused on the “Syrian problem” in his meeting with the Turkish prime minister.

The pressures on Turkey to take a more active role in Syrian affairs started much earlier. Turkey has been accused of failing to take a strong stand against Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian regime. Then, even some sort of military intervention from Turkey became a topic of consideration during the early summer. Nevertheless, it was very difficult for Turkey to take a firm position against the Syrian regime and to keep balanced relations with Iran. It still is!

 Iran is well aware that Turkey is a Western ally and a NATO member and at the end of the day, the interests of the two countries will eventually come to a bitter end. Yet, Iranians behaved as if balanced relations with Turkey were always sustainable and that Turkey could play a role in nuclear talks. Moreover, they encouraged Turkey to adopt an intermediary role but it turned out to be a major failure. The relations got even more strained when Turkey decided to denounce the Syrian regime and support the Syrian opposition openly while agreeing to join NATO’s missile program. Nevertheless, again they chose to give only a low-profile rhetorical reaction rather than directly confront Turkey.

Iran is playing the game very cleverly and carefully by avoiding any confrontation with Turkey because Iranians know that Turkey desperately needs a pretext to challenge Iran and to feel justified in its Syrian policy. Mostly for that reason, Iran started a military operation against Kurdish guerilla forces in northern Iraq as a kind of “preemptive strike.” Even so, Turkey tried to invent theories and stories of a “possible alliance between Iran, Syria and the PKK.” I do not think that the Iranians will fall in to this trap and support “any enemies” of Turkey at that moment. On the contrary, Iranians are keeping firm in an attempt not to give any excuse to Turkey to justify any future confrontation. Under those circumstances Turkey is heading into a very difficult position.

Some ex-Islamist writers like Ali Bulaç (a columnist at daily Zaman) have already started to warn the government “not to fall into the trap of Western imperialists who are trying to start a war and confrontation among Muslims.” One the one hand, Turkey is expected by the Western world to play a more active role in Syria which will lead to indirect confrontation with Iran. On the other hand, it is not in the interest of Turkey to end its balanced policy. It may be inevitable at some point but then the government will need a pretext to end good relations, but the Iranians are very cautious at not providing an excuse to change that policy.

That is why “putting pressure on Turkey to play a more active role in the interests of Syrian regime change” is tantamount to giving Turkey a “mission impossible.” This is a very big challenge for Turkish foreign policy and it may cost Turkey dearly.