The Waiting Game

By Matthew M. Reed

Washington needs Turkey if it’s going to turn the screws on Syria. American leverage is modest compared to the task at hand. For years now, Syria has been on the receiving end of sanctions and in recent months the US Treasury has targeted Assad’s inner circle, including the president, albeit with little effect. Beyond this, the US has very little business contact with Syria, meaning it cannot ratchet up pain with ease. It’s quite obvious Washington’s options are limited. And so Turkey proves itself indispensable because it enjoys commercial and diplomatic relations that it could sever. That said, Turkey, a country with rising stock in an unstable Middle East, is still playing the waiting game with Syria.

The Turkish response has been principled, yes, and stiffer recently. But it’s been timid—some might say naïve. These dueling impulses—principle and anxiety—deserve our attention. We should also reconsider what leverage Damascus currently possesses. Though Assad’s bloody crackdown is the equivalent of a fourth quarter ‘Hail Mary’ pass, the ball hasn’t hit the ground yet. The regime maintains some tricks that give Turkey pause. Washington should account for these while encouraging Turkish action against Syria, which could prove decisive.

Yesterday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took credit for a diplomatic breakthrough after weeks of bloody violence in Syria. “Our ambassador went to Hama and said that the tanks, security forces had started to leave Hama. This is highly important to show that our initiatives had positive results,” Erdogan reported to his party’s headquarters. He then announced expectations. “We hope that within ten to fifteen days this [i.e. the end of violence] will be realized and steps will be taken toward the reform process in Syria.”

Syrian armor and troops did in fact withdraw from Hama yesterday. And Turkey’s Ambassador, Omer Onhon, along with journalists, did visit. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu later said Ambassador Onhon had the chance to pray at noon with some residents observing Ramadan. Reports from last night, however, confirm Ambassador Onhon’s reception was a stunt: troops and armor returned in the darkness and killed 30 more Syrians. Other reports suggest that those forces that left yesterday attacked other towns instead.

To say the least, wishful statements made by Turkish officials are embarrassing. If indeed the Prime Minister was confident in Assad’s capacity reform, two week is an awful long time to wait. Hundreds more might be dead by then. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine Turkish leaders being so naïve. Their power and status hasn’t skyrocketed in the last decade due to good fortune; they’ve earned that reward with smart policymaking. It’s best if we give them the benefit of the doubt and consider what threats Assad brings to the table. These help explain Turkey’s anxiety and delay.

Diplomatic waste and economic loss weigh on Ankara. Turkish-Syrian relations have seen great success in recent years. Business has flourished between the two countries, as has travel and tourism. With Assad’s ouster, the Turk’s could lose years of investments if the Syrian business class, closely associated with Assad, is washed away by a tidal wave of bloodshed. They’ve been hesitant precisely because they’ve invested so much. Turkey’s leaders may find Assad’s actions “grotesque,” but he has not yet been replaced, and what follows could be years of civil war that jeopardize Turkish security and retard business. One should also note that international condemnations have not made the protests any more potent. This might also explain why the Turks have shown some faith in Assad’s ability to reform; there’s no guarantee he will be gone soon. Declarations by others certainly aren’t accelerating the process.

There are physical dangers as well. Assad could engineer a refugee crisis that sends even more Syrians into Turkey. This is a genuine threat made explicit by recent Syrian maneuvers along the border. Assad might also consider lifting his boot on the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist outfit ready and willing to kill Turks in order to carve out territory for itself.

The prospect of diplomatic waste and economic loss weigh heavily on Turkey’s leadership. So too does the possibility that Turkey will be burdened with refugees and terrorists. The real test will come soon enough, when the United States openly calls for Assad’s departure (either today or tomorrow). America’s principled stance—though much delayed and criticized—will put Turkish officials on the spot. In all likelihood, they will hedge their bets and make an announcement similar to but not as severe as the American one. Their democratic politics guarantee a tougher line now that they’ve been aroused by Assad’s barbarity; their regional status as a heavyweight hinges on their moral superiority; and, since Washington needs them now more than ever, Turkey’s importance is once again confirmed.

Estimates now suggest some 2,200 Syrians have been killed since the start of the uprising. In that time, the US and Turkey have each shown remarkable hesitance. To be generous: the Obama administration has been reluctant because it’s been saturated with crises. (In all honesty it might just be on the verge of short-circuiting as it manages wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, not to mention the transition in Egypt, Yemen’s deterioration, and Somalia’s chronic failures.) The Turks, for their part, are facing uncertainty that could preoccupy them for a decade, thus distracting them from their meteoric rise.

We can explain the waiting game without excusing it.

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