Thursday, March 8, 2012

Syria Humbles and Horrifies

PHOTO from Evrensel
Leftist demonstrators in Taksim protest imperialist intervention in the Middle East and Syria.

Speaking in Tunis today, President Gul unequivocally proclaimed Turkey's opposition to intervention in Syria emanating from outside the region. The statement comes days after the president and Prime Minister Erdogan called for a humanitarian corridor to be opened in order to mollify the suffering of the Syrian people. Gul's statement should serve as a warning for American policymakers that despite what some in Washington have taken to be Turkey's refreshingly aggressive position against the Syrian regime.

Turkey is essentially between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the Turkish public is increasingly angered by UN reports putting the death toll of Syrians at 35,000, horror stories broadcast on Turkish television from Hatay where over 10,000 refugees have sought haven on the Turkish border, and particular disgust among many who are more than angered at a Shi'a regime killing mostly Sunnis. Yet, at the same time, Turks are nervous. The border shared with Turkey is over 900 km across, and most are more than nervous (and rightfully so) that conflict in Syria could spill over the border and result in an influx of refugees and, worst of all, Turkish military involvement in what could be a very protracted civil war.

Further, concern that the United States could be goading Turkey into a war is also growing, and the more bellicose the statements coming from American policymakers (for instance, John McCain), the greater the concern. There is also, of course, concern about antagonizing Iran, upon which Turkey heavily relies for natural gas. The installment of a missile defense shield in Malatya, while pleasing to the United States, has jeopardized relations with Iran. It is doubtful that Prime Minister Erdogan's planned March 28 trip to Tehran will result in a re-setting of relations, and recent tensions are likely one reason why Turkey is seeking to host P5+1 talks on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Add into the mix the issue of destabilizing the Kurds in Syria, which Assad kept quiscent and among which Turkish media are already rumoring are now in cahoots with the PKK, as well as fears of al-Qa'ida and the possibility of a more complicated situation in Iraq as sectarians in that tension increase, Turks are understandably nervous.

As the situation intensifies, so does Turkish ambivalence, and so where does this leave Turkish support for a humanitarian corridor? Some Turkish officials have already stated that they are in support of a corridor that would be open to the Mediterranean rather than the Turkish border. This alone implies support for a multilateral effort, and one that would likely include players other than just the Arab League. And while Gul and Erdogan have called for a corridor, they have declined to comment further on how it would be executed.

Essentially, Syria is a wake up call for Turkey. It is simply impossible to have zero problems with neighbors, and especially in such a difficult neighborhood. Further, the idea that Turkey might go-it-alone is also likely to lose weight. As Barcin Yinanc elucidates:
Every time I see Turkey make an effort to mobilize international support to end the bloodshed in Syria, I cannot help but recall the results of the Transatlantic Trends survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund. When asked in the 2009 survey with which Turkey should cooperate most closely, the EU or the US, some 43 percent said Turkey should act alone – nearly twice the percentage of those favoring cooperation with the EU and ten times that favoring cooperation with the US. In 2010 this rate dropped to 34 percent, while in 2011 it has gone down further to 27 percent.

I am assuming that this rate might drop even further in the 2012 poll, if the Turkish public continues to hear complaints such as that voiced by Cemil Çicek, the Parliament speaker, which put the situation with Syria in unequivocal terms. “Don’t wind us up on that issue (Syria). No one should be so cunning, watching [the conflict in Syria] like a football game and leaving it to Turkey to handle,” Çiçek said last week in an interview with a media outlet from Saudi Arabia.

Çiçek described as “cunning” those who are taking the easy way out of the Syrian crisis by saying, “let’s leave the dirty work to Turkey.” Indeed, most probably they recall Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s famous statement from last year, when he addressed Turkey’s ambassadors. Davutoğlu said that Turkish diplomats would not only be like firefighters, rushing to stop crises in any corner of the world, but also like city planners, meaning that they would pursue a policy of preventing crises from happening.

It happens that Turkey’s firefighters have proven unable to extinguish the fire right next door. And naturally not a day goes by without an article appearing in the international press emphasizing the contrast between Turkey’s rhetoric and its real capacity to deliver.
And as this is one fire that is unlikely to easily be put out, Turks are waking up to the call that multilateralism is a must in Syria. Ironically, the current imbroglio across the Middle East--from Turkey's troubled relationship with Israel, Iran, and more recently, Iraq--might renew support for multilateralism and a more humble vision of Turkish foreign policy. This is refreshing for liberals who fear that the AKP's expansionist foreign policy have caused the government to take its eyes off of the European accession process (for those liberals who ever did think, much more still think, this is still a serious ambition of the government).

At the end of the day, and despite all the rhetoric otherwise and the rather proud and ambitious overreaching of Turkey's foreign policy, Turkey has been and will likely remain realist in its foreign policy orientation. Syria is humbling, and in the most horrible of ways since the reality is brought home by the enormous difficulties inherent in rendering aid and defense against mass human rights abuses -- brutality that Turks watch every night on television before going to bed, and know is occurring just to their south.

Yinanc says this is not a good time for Turkey to learn lessons, implying it is not a good time for Turkey to continue its Middle East adventuring. Yet, it seems there are other lessons to be learned.

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