What Turkey should do in the Middle East

What Turkey should do in the Middle East

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu hopes the Syrian crisis will not last three years, like the Bosnian crisis did. He nevertheless predicts that that Bashar al-Assad has only months, maybe even weeks, to go before he is toppled. The problem as far as Turkish public opinion is concerned, however, is that such remarks simply do not carry much weight anymore, because none of the government’s projections or expectations concerning Syria have come to pass.

The expectation was clearly that it would not take long to topple the al-Assad regime, and that Syria would go the way of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Al-Assad’s staying power and the risks that chaos in Syria might pose for the whole region were never factored into the calculations made.

There is also a serious concern embedded in Davutoğlu’s hope that the Syrian crisis will not take years to be resolved, like the Bosnian one. Mr. Davutoğlu appears to be recognizing in this way that even if al-Assad were to be overthrown tomorrow it would not mean that the Syrian crisis would end overnight. Given the sectarian bloodshed that has taken place, and is continuing apace, there is a very real chance that when al-Assad goes, the country will move towards all-out civil war, driven by deep feelings of vengeance as a result of which far more people will lose their lives.

It is clear that such a civil war will not only lead to further instability in the Middle East, but will also have a spillover effect for Turkey, worse than that it is already having. This is why it is vitally important for Ankara stop looking to Washington, NATO, and the U.N., which are unwilling to dirty their hands in Syria, and start taking its own precautionary measures against this very real possibility by prioritizing its own national interests.

What is meant by “measures” here is not of course a preemptive military intervention, especially not in the sense that some American “think tank” members appear to be hoping for, as reflected in various scenarios they are coming up with, that have the Turkish military streaming into Syria because of agitation by Kurds in that country. It is apparent to most sensible Turks that military involvement like this would be a disaster for the country, and the cause of a headache that will last for years. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has begun seriously provoking Turks with a killing spree that it has ramped up in line with turmoil in the region, would like nothing more than to see the Turkish army in Syria. This would amount to dragging Turkey into the quagmire of an asymmetric war, and leave Ankara in a mess similar to that the U.S., and Russia before it, found in Afghanistan.

The measures Ankara has to take must be peaceful in nature, with Turkey returning to the middle ground as far as the various disputes in the region are concerned, especially the growing sectarian rivalry. Mr. Davutoğlu vehemently denies that Turkey has been moving along sectarian lines and siding with Sunnis in Syria and elsewhere. Rather than blame those he accuses of spreading such misinformation, he should consider the very real reasons why the notion has arisen inside and outside Turkey that his government is in fact acting along sectarian lines.

A Shiite pilgrim from Lebanon was released by Syrian captives on Saturday, as a result of Ankara’s active intervention, and had strong words of praise for Turkey and the way it helped him gain his freedom. Even this small development could be the beginning of a policy aimed at regaining the hearts and minds of the region’s Shiites and Alevis, who have clearly turned against Turkey due to its Syrian policy.

A Turkey that remains impartial along ethnic, religious and sectarian lines can play a positive role in the Middle East. A Turkey that does not do this merely adds to the growing confusion.