Time to revise Syria policy

Time to revise Syria policy

What opened the doors to Turkey of the Middle East, where it has been warmly welcomed, was the Turkish Parliament’s rejection of joining the American troops occupying Iraq in 2003. 

Though the Justice and Development Party (AKP) seemed to be ready to send troops into Iraq and allow American troops to attack Iraq from Turkish territories, it could not garner enough votes to approve a government-backed decree. 

However, Parliament’s decision on March 1, 2003 opened new opportunities for the government to increase its political and economic influence in the region, partially breaking decades-old prejudices about the Ottoman era. 

The zero-problems-with-neighbors policy of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu helped Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan boost economic and trade relations with hopes to establish a free economic zone between the four regional countries. 

This policy, which has been built in less than a decade, is now passing through difficult times due to Ankara’s miscalculated approach concerning Syria. In addition, Iran’s efforts to keep the Syrian regime in power and to muddle already-instable Iraq make Turkey’s job more complicated. Recent developments fueled concerns that the current political climate in the region could flare up ethnic and sectarian clashes, which no doubt would also destabilize Turkey. 

Before questioning Turkey’s Syria stance, let’s briefly analyze the state of the uprising in Syria and the international community’s position. The Syrian opposition is weak and divided; its contacts with the rebels inside the country are not that strong either. Bashar al-Assad manages to control the country thanks to its strong army and intelligence organizations. It’s not so certain how long the Free Syrian Army can stand against government forces.

The international community seems reluctant to take the lead in efforts to force al-Assad to leave power. With presidential elections looming, U.S. President Barack Obama will not roll up his sleeves for Syria. The European Union can hardly find the time and energy to deal with Syria due to the economic crisis shaking the entire continent. Israel, whose target seems to be Iran, would only take advantage of this situation as Damascus will not be able to cause trouble. Russia continues to veto resolutions on Syria at the U.N. Security Council.

In addition, no one has any idea about the period after al-Assad and whether the vacuum to be created would be filled by extremists. 

Given this picture, Turkey seems to be the only country fully focused and devoted to toppling al-Assad’s regime. Talks of establishing a buffer zone or a safe haven to protect fleeing Syrians and leading the international community in imposing more pressure are part of this policy. Such interventionist policies would not only break the image Turkey has built in the region but are also inconsistent with its general foreign policy principles, the main pillar of which is peace. 

Thus Turkey had better revise its policy toward its southern neighbor, ahead of the second gathering of the Friends of Syria group on April 1 in Istanbul, by placing diplomatic efforts in front of all other options especially at a time when seasoned diplomat Kofi Annan’s initiative is still promising a deal between the government and the opposition.