Παρασκευή, 24 Μαΐου 2013

Turkey's Syria Dilemma Grows


 
Two years after explicitly calling for regime change in neighboring Syria, the Turkish leaders find themselves in the unsavory position of dealing with spillover conflict, growing internal opposition, policy disagreements with Washington and, above all, the prospect of Bashar al-Assad's survival despite all the external efforts to topple him, writes Kaveh L. Afrasiabi.
 
Middle East Online
In terms of pre-conference diplomacy, Turkey is sparing no efforts to position itself for high input on the agenda and outcome of the upcoming conference on Syria, jointly sponsored by US and Russsia. This is reflected in the recent White House visit of the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as this week's high-level Ankara visit by Saudi Arabia's crown prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, focusing on the crisis in Syria.
The "Geneva II" conference is supposed to attract representatives from both the Syrian regime and the rebels, who are nowadays on the defensive in many parts of Syria, including the important Homs province. Backed by Russia, Iran, and Lebanon's Hezbollah, the government forces have made impressive gains over the rebels recently, grudgingly admitted in the Western media, and this simply means that President Bashar al-Assad's hands have been strengthened and his representatives will exude confidence at the summit.
Turkey, on the other hand, will find itself on the defensive, hoping to chart a middle approach that features continuity with the past, e.g., concert with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the principal financial backers of the rebels, while gradually accommodating itself to the uncomfortable, and somewhat embarrassing, alternative of 'living with the Assad regime', albeit in a revised and reconstructed format, in the future.
But, by all indications, Ankara is not quite there yet and that is why after failing to convince President Obama for a more interventionist US course on Syria, Mr. Erdogan has now fixed his gaze on Saudi Arabia and the (increasingly unpopular and unrealistic) "no-fly" zone in parts of Syria. Yet, with Russia and Iran reportedly providing critical military equipment to Syria and thus bolstering the military's position, the "no-fly" idea is a bad idea that no one in NATO favors, given the prohibitive costs, and the sooner Erdogan drops it, the better.
Indeed, the crux of dilemma for Turkey is that it officially adheres to a "regime change" policy toward Syria that is bankrolled by the Gulf Cooperation Council states led by the Saudis, which has so far yielded no positive result, save throwing Syria into the bosom of a monumental chaos threatening its break-up. Unable to jettison the rhetoric behind this failed policy, Turkey is nowadays exhibiting the symptoms of a cognitive dissonance, whereby the force of reality on the ground in Syria indicating regime survival is not felt on the policy level in Ankara.
What then is Turkey's exact approach toward the forthcoming conference? Turkey has been quiet on Russia's insistence on Iran's inclusion, principally because that would mean adding to Damascus's regional bona fide, irrespective of Arab League's overt hostility to Bashar's presidency. Nor is it entirely clear what influence Turkey wields on the rebel groups, whose political and military wings do not necessarily meet eye to eye. Therefore, the net impact of Turkey on the coming conference and its results and prospects is under a thick cloud of question marks, partly because Ankara's own attitude is likely experiencing the tumults of slow re-adjustments in light of the staying power of Assad's regime. With the rapidly diminishing chances of Ankara playing 'kingmaker' in Damascus, Turkey's leaders have to make tough choices in the near future and they are indeed apt to make the wrong ones, that is, sticking to their hard-line anti-Assad approach bent on political transition to a post-Assad regime in Syria. That would mean risking a lengthy civil war in Syria, growing mass refugees, spillover conflict, and internal political polarization over the appropriate Syria policy. Avoiding these risks means, on the other hand, a candidate admission by Mr. Erdogan and his foreign policy team that their Syria policy has proved a failure and their stubborn continuation of that policy, in cohorts with the Saudis, may be a recipe for disaster, warranting a policy U-turn of sorts.
Certainly, US can play a big role in instigating such a necessary shift in Ankara's hitherto unsuccessful "regime change" approach vis-a-vis Damascus. In the coming days and weeks, much depends on the diplomatic savy of US Secretary of State John Kerry to lead the pack, instead of letting crucial regional players like Turkey and Saudi Arabia play the spoiler role. A litmus test of second Obama administration's foreign policy, US's ability to lead on Syria hinges on several factors, one of which is the ability to insulate itself from the counterproductive efforts of allies such as Turkey, that today instead of "zero problem" with neighbors has managed to make a mess of its regional relations, a net result of its "neo-ottoman" ambitions to shape the post-Arab Spring Middle East. For sure, time to jettison those unrealistic ambitions has definitely arrived.
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D.

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