Ankara May Suffer Domestically by Over-Involvement in Syria

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Ankara May Suffer Domestically by Over-Involvement in Syria

Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East, constructed on Foreign Minister Ahmet DavutoÄ?lu’s policy of `zero problems with neighbors,’ has been widely tested with regard to the Syrian crisis in its backyard, with the insurgency becoming a substantial domestic risk for Ankara if it continues to be involved in Syria, says Mohammed Ayoob, Michigan State University’s distinguished professor of international relations.

Calling Syria a good example of the success of `zero problems with neighbors,’ the moving forces behind Turkey’s foreign policy, before the eruption of the uprising in the country, Ayoob said that if Bashar al-Assad’s regime is deposed, Turkey will be left alone to deal with the fall-out in the neighboring country as regional and international powers are not interested in democratic changes in Syria but in reinforcing the segmentation of the country and curtailing Iran’s influence in the region.

Drawing a parallel between Syria and Afghanistan, Ayoob is concerned that Turkey might suffer the same fate as Pakistan as the chaos in Syria might engulf Turkey, worsening its domestic problems.

Talking about the possible methods of resolving the Syrian crisis with Sunday’s Zaman, Ayoob especially notes that any solution to this crisis is impossible if there is no trilateral consensus between Turkey, Iran and Russia. The analyst urges the three sides to make a deal regarding Syria, and especially for Ankara to improve its relations with Tehran, to achieve security and stability in the region.

How was Turkish foreign policy tested in 2012 with regard to Syria? Was it successful or not?

Turkey’s foreign policy was tested primarily in relation to Syria. Until the outbreak of the anti-Assad movement, Syria was considered the prime example of the success of Turkey’s foreign policy based on the dictum `zero problems with neighbors.’ It was indeed a remarkable achievement on Ankara’s part to have induced Syria to change its policy almost 180 degrees from being a staunch critic, indeed an antagonist, of Turkey to a very friendly neighbor engaged in economic and political cooperation with Turkey to the benefit of both countries.

Turkey’s decision to get very actively involved in supporting the Syrian opposition, including providing it bases on Turkish soil and spearheading the international campaign against the Assad regime, was a calculated risk on Ankara’s part based on the assumption that the Assad regime will fall quickly and Turkey will come out not only on the right side of history but with a new Syrian leadership beholden to Ankara for its support. Unfortunately for Turkey, things have not turned out as it had imagined or hoped for. Syria is now in the midst of a long-drawn out civil war that is likely to result in anarchy and a vivisection of the country into sectarian and ethnic enclaves, including a Kurdish one on the Turkish border that is likely to be hostile to Turkey — unlike the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq — and a magnet for Kurdish irredentism within Turkey.

Furthermore, the nature of the Syrian opposition towards the Assad regime has changed dramatically from being a civilian and non-violent movement to one of armed, but largely uncoordinated, insurrection. This has meant that there are a number of armed groups supplied by a diverse set of external supporters, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United States and France, engaged in fighting the regime’s forces and consequently creating mayhem in the country. This makes it unlikely that a unified authority in Syria would emerge even if the Assad regime falls. These groups include extremist elements, such as the Al-Nusra Front with reported ideological inks to al-Qaeda, that seem to draw a great deal of external support from the Gulf countries and are reported to be the best fighters in the civil war and responsible for inflicting the most severe damage on the regime’s forces.

A rerun of the Afghan scenario?

All this reminds me of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the 1990s. My main apprehension is that if or when the regime falls, the major powers involved in the effort to bring it down — principally Saudi Arabia and the United States — will lose interest and withdraw from the fray, leaving Syria to its fate. Neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia is interested in Syria primarily for the success of democracy in the country. It is oxymoronic to expect Saudi Arabia to promote democracy in Syria when the Saudi regime has been engaged in violently suppressing dissent not only in its own country, but also intervening in Bahrain militarily to suppress the democratic movement in the neighboring country. Both Washington and Riyadh are interested in helping the Syrian opposition primarily to hurt Iranian interests and to curb Tehran’s regional reach. However, unlike these two powers, Turkey cannot afford the luxury of walking away from Syria once Assad falls because of its geographic propinquity to Syria. I am extremely worried that we may see a rerun of the Afghan scenario with anarchy and terrorism in Syria spreading into Turkey just as anarchy and terrorism from Afghanistan were exported to Pakistan, leaving that country in shambles. If this scenario pans out, then Syria will no longer remain a foreign policy challenge for Turkey; it will become an immense domestic challenge as well and Ankara must do everything to prevent this from happening.

Do you think Turkey’s ambitious foreign policy aimed at zero problems with its neighbors is under threat, especially after the escalating crisis in Syria started to complicate Turkey’s ties with both Iran and Russia? Could this turmoil strain the US-Turkish alliance in the region as well?

Turkey’s over-involvement in Syria has imperiled its relations with both Russia and Iran, Turkey’s two major energy suppliers and major regional powers that border Turkey. Russia has in fact become Turkey’s largest single country trade partner and is the largest supplier of natural gas to the country. Iran is the second-largest supplier of natural gas to the country and the third-largest supplier of oil after Iraq and Russia. The virtual derailment of Turkey’s accession talks with the EU has further increased the importance of Russia and Iran for Turkey both in the economic and political spheres. Russia continues to have major influence in the Turkic states of Central Asia with whom Turkey has ethnic affinity as well as possibilities of lucrative economic interaction. Russia and Turkey also have a common interest in keeping the Caucasus region stable and peaceful and both border the energy-rich Black Sea.

I believe that Iran was the prime focus of Foreign Minister DavutoÄ?lu’s `zero problems with neighbors’ policy, outstripping in importance Turkey’s Syrian neighbor. Not only do Turkey and Iran share interests that range from curbing Kurdish irredentism — despite Iran’s attempt to use the Kurdish card against Turkey when relations deteriorated over Syria — to mutually beneficial economic cooperation, they are the two pivotal powers in the Middle East without whose cooperation no stable and legitimate structure of regional security can be constructed in the broader Middle East region. This has become increasingly clear in relation to Iraq, where serious differences between the two countries threaten to destabilize a major energy-rich country that lies at the heart of the Arab world. Moreover, as major regional powers, Iran and Turkey share the desire to minimize external intervention in the region, maintain their strategic autonomy and curb Israel’s aggressive behavior that threatens the stability of the Middle East both by continuing Jewish colonization of Palestine and by threatening to launch a war against Iran if the issue of Iran’s nuclear capacity is not solved to Israel’s satisfaction. It is, therefore, essential that Turkish-Iranian relations are put back on an even keel. Syria has become a major irritant in these relations and this is why it is essential that both Tehran and Ankara keep lines of communication open and work with each other to find a solution acceptable to both as well as to most of the political contenders within Syria. Turkey has recently indicated that it is willing to work with Russia to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis. I believe this effort should be expanded to include Iran because it will be impossible to find a satisfactory solution to the problem unless Ankara, Moscow and Tehran come to an agreement about Syria’s future political dispensation. In this context Ankara should seriously consider lending support to UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s proposal for a transitional government composed of the regime’s supporters and its opponents that would help ease Syria’s transition into the post-Assad era.

You say without elaboration that it is in fact the Port of Tartus that lies behind Moscow’s staunch support of Syria, its only Middle Eastern ally, since the start of the uprising in the country. Why is Tartus so important to Russia in this struggle?

I believe Tartus Port has great psychological value for Russia because it is its only base outside the former Soviet territories and gives Moscow the feeling that it continues to be an important player outside the post-Soviet space. Moreover, there are a significant number of Russian military advisers and civilians in Syria, which has been Moscow’s closest Arab ally for decades even when other Arab countries such as Egypt and Iraq moved out of the Russian orbit during the 1970s and 1980s. Tartus is a symbol of that relationship as well.

Syrian crisis and the Turkish model

What challenges do the Syrian crisis pose to the Turkish model in the region and how?

The Syrian crisis does not so much pose a challenge to the Turkish model in the region — in fact, Turkey’s stance may in the short run boost its standing among segments of Arab opinion — as it is a potential challenge to the domestic stability and economic performance within Turkey. As I have said earlier, if Syria is partitioned and/or descends into anarchy it will have a major impact on the Turkish domestic scene ranging from boosting Kurdish separatism to exacerbating Sunni-Alevi tensions. Moreover, Turkey cannot indefinitely divert its economic resources to helping the Syrian insurgency without it impacting the health of the domestic economy. Instability in Syria has already severely affected overland trade between Turkey and its eastern neighbors and this is likely to have a major negative impact on the booming economic relationship that Turkey has cultivated with its neighbors to the east.

Do you also believe that regional powers, including Turkey, played a role in turning the democratic uprising in Syria into a civil war?

I believe that every external power, with the partial exception of Turkey, that has become involved in the Syrian crisis has done so primarily for its selfish interests. As I have said earlier, for Saudi Arabia, the United States and its European allies, the prime objective is to deprive Iran of its foremost Arab ally, thus reducing Tehran’s regional influence, and for the United States, to punish Iran for its reluctance to stop enriching uranium that many in the West believe could provide Tehran potentially with weapons capability. Depriving Iran of its Syrian ally and conduit to the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas also serves Israeli interests and this has undoubtedly influenced American decisions on the Syrian crisis.

Turkey’s involvement has been partially altruistic because of its genuine concern for the plight of Syrian refugees who have flooded into the country. Turkey also wanted to be on the right side of history on this issue by supporting the democratic opposition and thus finding vindication for its own democratic model, especially since Turkey’s democratic credentials had been tarnished by its refusal to support the democratic uprising in Bahrain that was brutally crushed by the al-Khalifa regime with Saudi assistance. Of course, there were other considerations, including sending signals to the West that Ankara had not abandoned its European and American connection in pursuit of improved relations with the Muslim Middle East. Syria was the perfect medium through which to send this message as Turkish policies coincided with those of the United States and its allies on this crisis.

I also think that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄ?an and Foreign Minister Ahmet DavutoÄ?lu had invested so much in building their relationship with Assad that they felt he must be taught a lesson once he went back on his promise of reform that he had conveyed to the Turkish leadership. However, I believe that it is now time for the Turkish leadership to step back and take a hard look at the Syrian mess and make some very calculated decisions about what best serves Turkey’s domestic and region-wide national interests in the long run. It is in this context that Ankara should seriously evaluate the potential of a political solution and work with Russia — and possibly Iran — to achieve this goal.


Mohammed Ayoob is a distinguished professor of international relations at Michigan State University’s James Madison College and the department of political science. He is also a coordinator of the Muslim studies program at Michigan State University.

Within international relations theory, Ayoob is known for his theory of subaltern realism, which he first proposed in the 1980s as a critical rejoinder to the neorealism of Kenneth Waltz. Ayoob is a specialist on conflict and security in the Third World. His publications on the subject have included conceptual essays as well as case studies dealing with South Asia, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia.

He has also published books and articles on the interaction between religion and politics in the Muslim world. He has authored, co-authored or edited 13 books and published about 90 research papers and scholarly articles in leading journals, among them World Politics, International Studies Quarterly, International Studies Review, Foreign Policy, International Affairs, International Journal and Middle East Policy.

His books include `The Politics of Islamic Reassertion,’ `The Third World Security Predicament: State Making, Regional Conflict, and the International System,’ `The Many Faces of Political Islam’ and `Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia: Wahhabism and the State.’

This interview was originally published by Today’s Zaman.

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