Turkey’s Syrian Waiting Game

Assad and Erdogan in Damascus

In contrast to Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey has been far more patient in its policy towards Syria and the Syrian uprising. Meanwhile Iran has completely backed Assad and Saudi has thrown its lot in with the protesters. Each decision has clear regional implications (as I recently discussed) based on national interests, but it seems clear that Turkey’s wait and see approach is the safest bet. If Assad comes out on top, Turkey can still foster economic and political ties while encouraging reform; if Assad falls, Turkey can play a major role in the reconstruction of the Syrian government.

Rahul Ravi argues that the United States and Turkey are sharing this patient tactic because it is “the only card they have.” Well, it certainly isn’t the only play available, but it certainly is the wisest:

Syria challenges the United States and Turkey because the outcome of the situation is more ambiguous than either Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya.  If Washington calls for Assad to step down and he decides to fight to the very end, then the US implicitly realizes that its lack of efficacy on the ground.  In effect, the emperor will have no clothes, if he had any to begin with.  In the same situation, Ankara risks losing Syria completely to Iran along with its lucrative business deals and any ambition to stake Turkish influence in the “heart of the Arab world.”

For both Washington and Ankara, a falling and rising regional power, the risks are the same.  So why take them? Both play the waiting game because, frankly, its the only card they have.  The Obama Administration, while reportedly on the way to call for Assad’s ouster, has yet to do so even though Bashar has given them all the reason to.  Ankara condemned the violence at the start of Ramadan as “unacceptable”, but has yet to take concrete action.  It is because both countries have come to a grim realization: Damascus is on the slow path to self destruction.

I agree with a lot of what Ravi says in his article; however, I would argue that the risks in Syria are far greater for Turkey than they are for the United States. In addition to the economic ties between the two countries, Turkey’s regional status is growing whereas the American influence is declining. This is particularly evident in Syria since 2005: Turkey’s relationship with Syria and its regional reputation has exponentially increased while the US has been at odds with Damascus for a decade. Should Washington choose the Saudi route and demand Assad’s exit, relations between the countries could sour – but they are not far removed from the nadir. Turkey has far more to lose by taking an unnecessary gamble.

This wait and see approach starkly contrasts with Iran – though Tehran has long-backed Assad and has strategic interests at stake (ie. a geographical link to Hezbollah.) It is quite understandable, then, that Iran has stood behind the Syrian government. What is more confusing is the Saudi decision to harshly condemn the regime and withdraw its ambassador. It is true that Saudi doesn’t have as many economic and cultural interests in Syria as Turkey does, it still stands to lose ground regionally if Assad is able to maintain power.

Photo from Uprooted Palestinian

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