The recent Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul, which ended with new measures and the call for a clearer timeline for Kofi Annan’s diplomatic mission, highlighted further the active role that Turkey is playing in a fast-changing region. Indeed, the Arab uprisings have catapulted Turkey to the center of international attention and the region’s fluid power dynamics. Having long encouraged the idea of regional leadership, Turkey finally has the opportunity to prove itself. Although success will be measured by Turkey’s ability to affect developments on the ground, it will depend equally on how Ankara chooses to define its leadership.
The past year in the Arab world has shown Turkey to be skillful and possibly quicker than some of its transatlantic partners to shift from a status quo-oriented actor to an advocate of change. This shift has taken place so far without Turkey raising its military profile. In fact, Turkey seems to remain skeptical about imposing military solutions on political and humanitarian crises. To the extent that this has exposed a gap between its increasingly explicit regime-change rhetoric and its readiness to carry the burden for intervention, it is a sign of weak leadership. But to the degree that it is based on an assessment of the consequences for regional stability, Turkey’s failures are less evident. International observers may be tempted to make the use of force the litmus test of Turkish resolve, but they would be largely mistaken.
Still a relatively new player in the Middle East — a region on which it turned its back after Ottoman rule — Turkey is trying to rise as both a leader and a model, displaying the hesitation such a transition demands. Requests from brutally oppressed peoples for external military intervention have to be balanced with political considerations. Arab countries are divided on how to solve the Syrian crisis, and Turkey can neglect their views at its peril. Not timid about the use of force — observe its handling of Kurdish separatism — Turkey may resort to using its military capabilities in the near future. But the calculus seems to be that a prudent and selective military posture may in fact support, not weaken, its quest for leadership.
To a large extent, Turkey’s transatlantic partners can — and do — understand its position. What they can expect as a sign of more effective and mature leadership is a Turkey that plots out a defined course of action, including military options, and sticks to it. When it comes to Syria, it is critical that Turkey is clear with itself and communicates effectively to its allies what the end game is. Growing pressure for an ultimatum to Damascus is reducing available options, and one has to hope that Ankara has weighed the implications of the unfolding course. As for Iran — an even more critical test for Turkish leadership and international cooperation — what is once again important is that Ankara not improvise, and that it instead sets clear benchmarks for policy change if Iran fails to reassure Turkey and the West.
A last, but no less important, point about Turkish leadership concerns the so-called Turkish model, which attempts to reconcile an Islamic society with secular democracy, ensure equitable growth, and maintain civilian primacy in politics. In this case, modesty and hesitation should be welcomed rather than greater self-assurance. Turkey’s achievements in recent years are undeniable, and the Turkish experience offers important lessons for Arab countries. But Turkey is hardly a finished model, and its value depends on its further fulfillment. Economic and regional imbalances persist together with shortcomings in the democratic system and unsolved issues from Cyprus to the Kurdish question. Along with its external relations, the adoption of a civilian and democratic constitution should be seen as a critical test of Turkish leadership. Rapprochement with neighbors that have long-standing controversies with Turkey, from Cyprus to Armenia, can be as powerful a signal as the readiness to accept the shift to confrontation with countries like Iran if engagement were to fail.
As they expect Turkey to live up to the role it has sought for years, transatlantic allies should not miss the link between Turkish leadership and the fulfillment of the Turkish model. A West that turns a blind eye to the deficiencies of the unfinished Turkish model because it needs Ankara’s strategic assets would ultimately do a disservice to Turkey and regional progress. Instead of pressuring Ankara with questions about whether it can lead, Turkey’s friends should encourage the learning process that is underway. Defining what Turkish leadership entails will be a critical step along the way.