Attacking Syria Is a No-Win Situation for Turkey

With military intervention against Assad unlikely and a protracted civil war ensuing, Turkey is in a quandary due to its rapidly deteriorating relationship with Damascus. A war of words was to be expected, with Turkey lumped into the group of nations “legally, ethically, and politically responsible for the crimes committed by the terrorist groups” according to Syria’s information minister.1 Turkish officials claim Syria is now supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) separatists, whom the Turks have been battling in the Southeast and Iraq.2 But there are more pressing matters: Not only are refugees multiplying, but as of April, cross-border skirmishes have started to flare up—and these are poised to escalate. The Turkish army has mobilized at the border and scrambled warplanes, after Syrian anti-aircraft guns downed a Turkish F4 that briefly strayed into it neighbor’s airspace.

This posturing, without any diplomatic front, may lead to Prime Minister Erdogan’s most extreme option, full-on war. Though his citizenry is less than thrilled about this prospect.3 In fact, Turkey’s foreign ministry has already had to deny reports that it is gearing up for an attack on Syria aimed at regime change.4 As noted above, there are several reasons military escalation is a bad idea. First and foremost, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has rejected it, implying that Turkey would be on its own.5 Without U.S./NATO support, there is no guarantee of victory against Syrian forces bolstered by Iranian and Russian weapons and advisors as well as terrorist proxies. Should Turkey conspire with anti-Assad nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to remove the dictator covertly, the result would invite a similarly destabilizing mess, if not a Syrian declaration of war.

On the purely hypothetical other hand, if Erdogan were to make a friendly deal with Damascus and expel the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, he risks alienation and anger from the U.N., NATO and all of his Sunni neighbors. The rather unthinkable move would be a reputation-damaging betrayal striking at the heart of Turkish pride and integrity. And Syrian refugees would be led into a slaughterhouse.

The Turkish government has no choice but to protect its border and therefore enable Syria’s foes—and its growing list of defectors. However, if Ankara decided to change tactics and open up a diplomatic line to Damascus, this could be used as a bargaining chip. And indeed, it is in Turkey’s best interest to act as negotiator between the hostile parties and move to the forefront of the peace-plan effort—as it has done between Syria and Israel and the U.S. and Iran.xi With far more leverage than the United Nations, in the form of both threats and assistance, the Turks needs to be open to talks with Tehran, Moscow and most of all Bashar al-Assad himself. Prime Minister Erdogan should be sitting where Kofi Annan has sat and must work to bury the hatchet. The brutal dictator, despite his crimes against humanity, is not going anywhere. (While high-level defections continue, as with Brigadier General Manaf Tlass in July, they are all Sunni officers and mostly those who were already under house arrest.) Without foreign intervention, this civil war has the potential to play out for years.

Though the opposition will be virulently against this course, Turkey, as their host and defender, has considerable leverage over them as well—and no other nation or group has it. Turkish soldiers must be at the border, ready to protect the Syrian opposition and refugees, but they must take care never to provoke Syria’s armed forces. Foreign Minister Davutoglu should be at every meeting between Clinton and Lavrov and Annan and Assad. That the ever-convening international community has not worked to press this initiative shows a lack of will to end the bloodshed as well as a delusional dream that Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite accomplices will step down. The goal is a ceasefire, effectively saving thousands of civilian lives, and only one country has the ghost of a chance at working toward a real one.

Turkey has been acknowledged as a Muslim beacon of prosperity and liberalism in the Middle East and has indeed made admirable choices, often at once pragmatic and idealistic, during the Arab Awakening. But it has watched, waited and reacted long enough. The fledgling democracy must take the opportunity to assert itself as the major regional player and pursue an aggressive role as peacemaker—which will gain it the respect of the West without alienating it from the greater Middle East or Russia. Turkish expertise and tradition in balancing secular and Muslim government should be exported to Libya, where thousands of Turks reside and where business cooperation may help to stabilize the fractured nation. It should be offered to an Egypt grappling with an identity swinging between a military junta and religious populists. In Syria, the Turks are the best suited to build the bridge connecting the regime in Damascus and the scattered opposition. That bridge, as flimsy as it may be, is desperately needed to stop the daily massacres and the growing sectarian tragedy that is already set to poison future generations. It goes without saying that Turkey itself should lead by example, clean up its own backyard with respect to the Kurdish question, Armenia and Greece, and shed its antiquated and artificial attempts to gird it nationalist pride by suppressing non-Turks. To be seen as fervent in trying to solve these issues at home and taking the reins of the region’s conflicts would bestow Turkey with true national pride and international prestige.

1“Turkey Allows Limited Access to Syrian Refugee Camp.” Hurriyet Daily News. Turkey. June 19, 2011.
http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=turkey-allows-limited-access-to-syrian-refugee-camp-2011-06-19

2“Turkey and the Arab Spring: Embracing ‘People’s Power’.” Gallia Lindenstrauss. European Institute of the Mediterranean. March 2012. www.euromesco.net/images/papers/papersiemed14.pdf

3“The Tide Begins to Turn.” The Economist. July 7, 2012. www.economist.com/node/21558276

4“Report: Turkey Tells West It Might Launch Offensive Against Syria.” Today’s Zaman. Turkey. June 27, 2011. http://www.todayszaman.com/news-248653-report-turkey-tells-west-it-might-launch-offensive-against-syria.html

5“U.S. Tells Turkey to Back Off Syria.” NOW Lebanon. Tony Badran. March 22, 2012. http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=378866

Michael Quiñones’ latest project, a fizzy look at foreign policy predictions, launched in July 2012 at There Will Be War.