Until recently, the AKP government saw its burgeoning relations with Damascus as the model success story for its improved foreign policy—a foreign policy that sought renewed political and economic engagement in the Middle East and its periphery. This is a long way from the days when a belligerent Turkey threatened war unless Syria agreed to stop harboring the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in 1998.
Ten years later, Turkish-Syrian relations had blossomed. Erdogan and Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, who had assumed power after his father’s demise in 2000, had developed a strong and close personal relationship. Erdogan appeared to take the young Bashar under his wing, and Turkey provided critical support to the embattled Assad regime when it came under pressure to remove its troops from Lebanon after the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and even at the outset of the recent uprising in Syria.
The AKP developed a narrative of “two peoples, one state” as the leaderships held joint cabinet meetings, eliminated visa requirements and discussed economic integration. By his own admission, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Syria some sixty times.
As protests began, Turkey made clear its preference that Assad reform his regime rather than be toppled in the way of Egypt’s Mubarak or Tunisia’s Ben Ali. Ankara certainly wanted to avoid the kind of bloodshed that has characterized the Libyan and Yemeni uprisings. Erdogan called on Assad to institute reforms, such as lifting the state of emergency and releasing political prisoners. When Bashar failed to heed his advice, the Turkish prime minister dispatched Davutoglu and his trusted intelligence chief to Damascus to offer their counsel.
However, by initiating a major military attack on Jisr al-Shughour, Assad may have committed a strategic blunder. For the residents of a town near the Turkish border, it was only natural that they would seek safety next door. The sight of the refugees streaming into Turkey forced Erdogan’s hand. While the Turkish government has set up three refugee camps housing some five thousand displaced persons, the fact of the matter is that there are many who have not registered with Turkish officials and many more waiting to cross over. All these refugees come with their own tales of horror that seep into the Turkish press, making it all the more difficult to ignore their plight.
Assad, therefore, has lost the only friend willing to stand up for him other than the regime in Tehran. What is more, Erdogan, unlike the Iranian leaders, commands a great deal of respect both on the Arab street and in Western capitals. Erdogan must have come to the realization that the Ba’ath regime in Syria is doomed. Assad may survive for a while and spill more blood in the process, but he has eschewed his legitimacy. The fallout will be a prolonged downturn in Syria’s fiscal and political health. For Turkey, which prizes economic relations because of its need to develop export markets, the troubles in Damascus obviously augur poorly for future commercial linkages. Bashar has already hinted that he would be willing to jettison free-trade agreements to maintain the support of the critical Sunni business establishment.
All of this has brought Turkey closer to its Western allies. The last thing Ankara wants to do is repeat the mistakes of Libya, where crowds attacked the Turkish consulate in Benghazi and burned its flag in protest of Turkey’s perceived support for Qaddafi. In Syria, if Assad’s demise is only a matter of time, then Turkey has to be cognizant of the sentiments of those who will replace him down the line.
It is noteworthy that Erdogan referred to the need for a UN Security Council resolution condemning Assad. President Obama and Erdogan talked often on the telephone about the Syrian crisis. Unlike Libya, where they were at odds, on Syria there is a clear mutual realization that what is needed is an orderly transition. The US recognizes that Turkey has important cards to play because of proximity and recent history, and Ankara also understands that the problem is far too big to handle alone. If the Turks take the lead in calling for a tough UN Security Council resolution, it would constitute a powerful signal to any of those sitting on the fence—whether it be in Damascus, Aleppo, Delhi, Moscow or Beijing.
Fresh from an electoral victory, Erdogan and the AKP will find it easier to chart a course on Syria that is more antagonistic toward Damascus. What remains a puzzle is what position Ankara will assume towards Tehran if the latter decides to back Assad to the hilt.