From engagement to isolation, from isolation to punishment
Turkey’s policy concerning Syria since earlier this year when the winds of change in the Arab world also spread to the country’s southern neighbor can be categorized into three main phases.
In the early days of the protests, Turkey showed full engagement with the Syrian administration in trying to convince it to heed the demands of the protestors. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu were personally involved in this process and advised President Bashar al-Assad to lead the reform process, pledging technical and political support in the process.
Davutoğlu’s crucial visit to Damascus where he held six-hour-long talks with Assad on Aug. 9 brought about broken promises and more brutal attacks on civilians, which pushed Turkey to give up trying to convince the defiant Assad. With the end of this first phase, Turkey more openly joined the Western club, which had begun to voice calls for a Syria without Assad.
During the course of the second phase, which aimed at isolating Damascus from the rest of the world, Turkey on the one hand coordinated this process with Qatar and the United States and, on the other, allowed the Syrian opposition to meet on its territory to discuss the future of the country. Though the efforts at the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Syria failed due to Russia and China’s opposition, the Arab League’s historical decision to suspend Damascus strengthened the hands of the anti-Assad bloc. That decision, taken by 18 votes of 22 countries, left Syria alone together with Iran in the region. In this regard, talks in Morocco yesterday and today will be crucial and will be indicative for many in terms of what happens next.
An Assad administration that is no longer legitimate will face more difficulties ahead, as an inclusive bloc consisting of Turkey, the Arab League, the European Union, the U.S. and other main powers is considering ways to punish it.
No doubt, measures Turkey could take against Syrian are potentially most detrimental given the close economic and other relations between the two countries. While Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said Turkey could consider cutting off its electricity supply to Syria, Davutoğlu mentioned some very effective sanctions against its southern neighbor.
No doubt those massive attacks against Turkish diplomatic missions in Syria over the weekend pushed Turkey to lose its temper and convinced the government to punish Damascus.
One point in this picture should not be forgotten, however. To the extent Turkey can hurt its southern neighbor, it should not underestimate the ability of Syrian intelligence and the military to benefit from Turkey’s weaknesses. As described by Erdoğan, Assad who is on “knife-edge” will not hesitate even for a second to retaliate by more openly reviving his relations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The wisest way for Turkey is to wait for a consensus among the members of the international community before imposing its own punishing sanctions.