Turkey’s Syrian gamble

Turkey’s Syrian gamble

French President Sarkozy gambled on Libya by turning on Col. Gadhafi at the start of the uprising, even if it was not clear at the time that this uprising would succeed. In the end his gambled paid off and France secured a good place in post-Gadhafi Libya.

Turkey initially opposed any intervention in Libya and even accused Sarkozy of harboring “imperialist motives.” But it had no choice in the end other than pursuing the French line, and thus became a committed member of the coalition against Gadhafi.

On Syria, however, the roles are reversed. This time Turkey is taking a gamble by leading the international pressure on Damascus. Ankara may oppose any outside military intervention against Assad’s regime, but it is deeply involved in what amounts to an effort at regime change. Sheltering and providing political support to the Syrian opposition, which is now moving toward armed struggle, cannot be interpreted in any other way.

Unlike Libya, however the stakes are higher in Syria, since it is not clear whether Assad will indeed be toppled anytime soon. He could remain in power with his strong military, a unified Alawite/Nusairi minority and the support (political or otherwise) of Iran, Russia and China. These countries couldn’t care less about the suffering of Syrians and are only concerned with preventing the West from strengthening its foothold in the region through friendly Arab regimes.

There are critics inside and outside Turkey, of course, who say Ankara’s involvement in Syria is also selfish. Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, for example, vehemently denies this involvement reflects a sense of solidarity with Syria’s majority Sunni’s who are governed by an Alawite minority. He maintains that Turkey reached out to President Assad at a time when the West was trying to isolate him and did so without any sectarian considerations.

That is true since sectarian divisions were not as pronounced only a year ago as they are today. But times have changed and a key aspect of the new set of circumstances is the growing sectarian divide in the Middle East. It seems inevitable therefore that the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which hails from an Islamist background, should incline toward the Sunni side of the equation.

Take Bahrain, for example. Foreign Ministry officials insist Ankara is not turning a blind eye to the oppression of the Shiite majority there by a governing Sunni minority. Ankara has indeed issued official statements critical of the situation in Bahrain. But one can hardly argue that Prime Minister Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have been as vocal on Bahrain as they have been on Syria.

That aside though, the fact remains that if Assad is toppled, Turkey’s great Syrian gamble will have paid off. It will be the country that the new leaders of Syria look to first as they try to establish a new regime. Turkey’s profile in the Sunni world across the Middle East will also increase, of course.

Shiites will not look so favorably on Turkey then and Ankara will have to win over the Syria’s Nusairi Alawites. Given that this minority has no choice but to value secularism and democracy in the future to protect itself against the majority Sunnis it fears, this may not be as hard as some assume.

If Assad somehow remains in power, however, Turkey’s gamble will have failed and this will leave Ankara facing a new set of negative circumstances along its 850-kilometer border with Syria. That must be a worrying prospect for both Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu.