Turkish Elections and a Regional Approach to Syria

How will post-elections Turkey act towards Syria?

The area in the north-west of Syria seems to be becoming a violent hotspot in the ongoing protests against the regime of President Bashar Assad. Last weekend, a significant number of Syria soldiers were killed (initially reported as 20, then increased to 120), resulting in an intense, ongoing military operation in and around the town of Jisr al- Shughur that has sealed the town and has brutally put down rebellion in surrounding villages. The intensification of military action in the north-west could, and probably does, have immense implications for the country and its northern neighbor. As Turkey moves farther away from the Assad government, the United States should try to partner with the regional power to find an alternative to war.

For Syria, such an enormous military push – reportedly thousands of troops accompanied by heavily armored tanks – indicates that the regime is perhaps concerned about losing control of this area of the country, which has reportedly been receiving small arms from across the Turkish border. Yet perhaps more interesting is the way in which Turkey has viewed the developments to its south. With thousands of Syrian refugees flowing into the south of the country, Turkey has made it clear that it doesn’t want a repeat of the 1991 Kurdish refugee influx from Iraq and it has been reported that the Turkish military has drawn up plans to possibly enter Syrian territory to secure a safe area for Syrian refugees.

The Turkish government has neither confirmed nor denied these reports, although such a move would potentially break international law (barring a UN mandate, which is unlikely considering Russia’s current stance) and would certainly push Syria into civil war and, possibly, international war with Turkey. As over 4,300 Syrian refugees have already crossed over the border into Turkey – with the border remaining open, it seems highly unlikely that the Turkish government would take such a massive risk. Moreover, the Turkish government is constrained at the moment by the upcoming parliamentary elections as the ruling coalition does not want to take any stance regarding Syria that might be unpopular at home. From Yavuz Baydar at Today’s Zaman (though I am unable to find the original article):

The increased clashes caught Ankara unprepared because of the mobilisation of the election campaigns, and that is why Ankara has reacted fairly cautiously. But from Monday [after the election] we will see new developments.

Turkey has been very cautious, holding relations with the Assad regime intact while increasingly gradually its support for the rather disarrayed opposition. But it seems now the direction of events is changing the balance of Ankara’s policies.

There was a belief that Assad would change the politics in general, and perhaps breakthrough from the old guard and start reforming, but Ankara’s expectations will fail, it seems. As soon as it is clear in Ankara’s eyes that it has failed, there will be a very sharp turn in Turkish policy.

The two countries had recently strengthened ties through economic cooperation and scrapped the pre-existing visa requirements as part of Turkey’s effort to improve relations with its neighbors. This ‘no-problems’ foreign policy is being challenged by Assad’s crackdown. Indeed, some of the harshest words concerning the Syrian government’s actions have come from Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been a close friend of Assad for some time. The complexity of the Syrian situation has created many questions and few answers, yet it could be the actions of Turkey after the elections, scheduled for tomorrow (6/12), that prove to be the most important and consequential.

Should Turkey take a stronger line on Syria, it would represent a shift in the country’s regional policy. In a full-blown civil war erupt in Syria, the opposition would certainly call on neighboring Turkey provide weaponry and financial support. Moreover, the Syrian opposition would push for a porous border with Turkey (870 km) in order to create a safe haven should the opposition be unable to carve out a Syrian Benghazi. Should Turkish support for the Syrian opposition reach this level it would be easy to imagine how quickly the civil war could expand into a regional conflict (particularly considering the alleged nuclear program in Syria). The risk of internationalizing the Syrian conflict will certainly temper Turkish material support for the opposition, though it will not eliminate all support.

Yet as one of Syria’s greatest allies turns farther against the Assad regime, the United States could begin to take a more aggressive approach to the Syrian uprising. While President Obama has harshly condemned the actions of the Assad regime, it is unclear if the United States is ready for what might succeed Assad. Greater support from Turkey would allow America to push for a gradual transition from the current regime through a combination of regionally backed sticks and carrots. With the specter of civil war looming large, the United States must quickly take advantage of Ankara’s increasing opposition to Assad to create a palpable policy for transition in Syria that helps prevent further descent of the crisis:

But there could be a regional consensus for a guided political transition. And that is where American efforts should now be directed. Regional leaders have slowly begun to accept the magnitude of the challenge to the Asad regime, and fear the chaos which might follow a full-scale civil war. If a plan for change in Syria were tied to a clear overarching U.S. strategy for the region, there is a chance that they could be enlisted in support of something which would align them and the U.S. with the aspirations of Arab public opinion while advancing their strategic interests. It won’t be easy, but the potential benefit might just make it worth the risks.

The Parliamentary elections tomorrow that should return the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power will clarify the stance of Turkey towards the Syrian crisis, though the government is unlikely to decrease its support for the Syrian opposition. Indeed, it is likely that Ankara continues to trend away from Assad and will be able to be more active and vocal without domestic elections to temper Turkish leaders. Turkey must be careful not to create the sense that it is actively supporting any armed opposition as it would risk internationalizing the conflict. Yet the popular AKP, the United States and other regional actors should attempt to limit the possibility for disastrous civil war by openly and clearly presenting negotiated, planned and peaceful alternatives to self-destruction for the Syrian government.

Photo from El Noticioso

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