The Turkey of today has far more tools at its disposal than ever before to advance its agenda as a leading regional power. Having sought the role of regional mediator over the last decade, Turkey’s litmus test of leadership comes in Syria, beginning with how Ankara deals with a Bashar al Assad regime that still enjoys support from Beijing, Moscow, and, most critically, Tehran. Having just hosted and wrapped up the “Friends of Syria” group’s second conference in Istanbul with a list of recommendations and declarations, but with few concrete decisions, all eyes are now on Turkey.
Today, Turkey is the first among equals of Syria’s neighbours and is in the best position to coalesce international support for or against Damascus. Having called for regional solutions for regional problems, Ankara has been rhetorically leading the way against Damascus since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly called for Assad’s removal in November. And there can be little doubt that the United States, Europe, and the Arab Gulf states are eager to see Turkey leading efforts against Syria. For its part, Turkey has acted with extreme caution — some would say uncertainly — perhaps because the complexity of the crisis has caused Turkey’s normally confident leaders to doubt their own vision and capacity. Syria is likely to be their foreign policy crucible.
Given the implications for Turkey’s own security interests along its 900 kilometer border, and the fear of the civil war spiraling into a broader regional conflict, Ankara has been cautiously monitoring the situation and been out in front of the humanitarian relief efforts without committing itself to any future course of action. Only last month did Turkey close its embassy in Syria and order the withdrawal of all diplomatic staff. The same week as the second meeting of “Friends of Syria” group, Turkish Airlines announced the cancellation of flights to Damascus and Aleppo starting from April 1.
At the same time, Turkey has moved far beyond private criticism by leading the push for international action and sanctions against Damascus and reacting furiously to Russia and China’s United Nations Security Council vetoes. Ankara is publicly hosting Syrian opposition leaders along with insurgents that have based themselves across the border, and has reportedly been secretly arming the same forces. And it has already prepared unilateral sanctions that go far beyond what any Western power has thus far attempted and was the force behind the “Friends of Syria” international conferences held in Tunisia and most recently in Turkey.
The lack of coordination and training among Syrian opposition groups has not engendered confidence in Ankara, which fears instability far more than another neighboring dictator. Turkey’s fears about Syria’s territorial integrity and the possible implications for Ankara’s own Kurdish population have further discouraged any bold moves. Ankara’s best hope is that Assad can be transitioned out by a regime that fears for its own future so as not to allow the country to deteriorate into chaos. Turkey has tried desperately to use all of its accrued leverage with Damascus — offering its good offices to broker a compromise and eventual asylum to Assad — to no avail. Kurdish and sectarians divides within Syria remain one form of potent leverage against a Turkish government that fears instability more than the brutal crackdown across the board.
For Turkey, leading on Syria and getting it right is critical. But Syria is a complicated challenge because of the interaction between domestic, regional, and international factors, which present Ankara with a nightmarish set of moving parts. Turkey may not lack the political and physical capacity to address a wide range of issues attached to Syria, but it appears to lack strategic imagination. Being able to mobilize the international community in favor of a fractured Syrian opposition is no easy task, but ultimately this will determine the regional contours for Ankara as it seeks a stable and possibly more democratic Syria. As Ankara continues to cautiously weigh its options Assad’s ongoing onslaught on his own people will force Turkey to put its force behind its rhetoric or admit its own shortcomings as a regional leader.