Turkey Can “Lead from Behind” Too

In September of last year, official Syrian media claimed refugee camps across the border in Turkey were “centers of isolation full of rape and torture.” The accusation, however false, was designed to scare Syrians fleeing from Assad’s widening crackdown. Turkish officials were naturally disgusted by the allegation as well as the regime’s indiscriminate violence. By that time, the death toll was approaching the 3,000 mark, although the resistance remained largely peaceful. Looking back at the Syrian drama as it unfolded last year, the month of September looks decisive from Turkey’s perspective.

Throughout the summer of 2011, Turkish officials, including Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, sought a peaceful resolution. Turkish attempts—even repeated phone calls from Erdogan to Assad—failed although Syrian officials led Ankara to believe the crackdown would soon end. By late August, it was clear that Assad’s forces would not stand down. Turkey was duped. Embarrassed even. The pace of violence picked up in the following months. More refugees were pushed across the border into Turkey.

Turkey’s rhetoric sharpened dramatically in September. Erdogan  warned Assad that the “era of repressive regimes has ended.” Turkish media quickly magnified the prime minister’s outrage even though it wasn’t long ago that his government prided itself on improved relations between Syria and Turkey. Erdogan announced that all contacts between Ankara and Damascus were suspended that month. He and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said bilateral sanctions would soon be adopted. Erdogan also promised to visit the refugee camps.

Erdogan didn’t visit the camps in Hatay Province that October because his mother passed away. He was also reportedly ill earlier this year. Although the prime minister continued to criticize the regime in Damascus, symbolic and substantive action was put on hold so that Turkey would not be seen as getting out ahead of the international community even though its rhetoric had left all other nations in the dust. Sanctions weren’t adopted until November 30, when the Arab League suspended Syria.

Acting with a broader coalition of Arab states afforded Turkey something like “plausible deniability” in diplomatic form: by waiting for the Arab League, Turkey limited its exposure to Syrian reprisals since it did not lead the way on punishing the regime in Damascus. In the meantime, Turkey allowed Syrian dissidents to coordinate inside the country against its neighbor. Turkish rhetoric remains tough. Sanctions are now in place which cut off Syria’s central bank, freeze government assets, block weapons shipments that might pass through Turkey, and cancel all credit offered to Assad’s government.

Regardless of these measures, Assad is still locked in an existential conflict. We can cynically (but safely) assume sanctions will not force him to change course. Violence accelerated last year—after the Arab League, Turkey, and European Union slapped Assad and his inner circle with more sanctions. More than 10,000 have died in the conflict as of today, with the revolution growing militarized, foreign weapons flowing to both sides, and forces loyal to Assad shelling restive cities and raiding homes. Some 23,000 Syrian refugees now reside in Turkey.

Earlier this month, Erdogan finally visited a refugee camp—nine months after he promised to do so. Such delay is representative of Turkey’s general approach to Syria (although it may be excusable given Erdogan’s private circumstances). Official Turkish rhetoric remains principled—super-charged, in fact, by Erdogan’s electric personality. But Turkish action seems less and less likely judging by local media. In fact, Turkish policy hasn’t changed much since I wrote my November article for the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, titled “Turkey Anxiously Weighs Cost of Escalation with Syria.”

Relations between Ankara and Damascus are now irreparable. Erdogan can not climb down from his high rhetoric; Assad’s hands are too bloody. At the same time, however, Ankara is not eager to expose itself by leading the way. Turkish officials fear Syrian-sponsored terrorism while praising the “glorious resistance.” In doing so they focus attention on Assad’s crimes. They prove that the regime is immune to reason. And, whether they want to or not, incidentally promote intervention as a solution since a political settlement seems impossible. Perhaps we should consider this the Turkish variant of “leading from behind,” to borrow a controversial phrase from a White House official who used it to describe the U.S. role in Libya.

Geography makes Turkey vital to any action but it has yet to promote any initiatives. Turkish officials briefly toyed with the idea of invoking Article 5 of the NATO charter when Assad’s forces fired on refugee camps inside Turkey. But that option–the mutual defense clause–was quickly dismissed, in large part because NATO officials have said intervention in Syria is not an option. Article 5 also lost its appeal because the cross-border infractions did not escalate or become frequent enough to warrant sustained outrage. Talk of “humanitarian corridors” and “safe zones” enforced by outside powers have receded from the Turkish debate recently. Turkey wants others to do more. “This is an international problem, a problem of humanity,” he said on May 7. Today Erdogan told his party, “There is also a limit to patience, and I believe that, God willing, there is also a limit to the patience in the U.N. Security Council.”

Turkish officials are especially worried that their proximity and capabilities (as NATO’s second-largest contributor of forces) have created expectations. Washington, according to this reading, expects the Turks to carry any burden with little help.  Omer Taspinar of Brookings captured this thinking in a recent column for Today’s Zaman, a Turkish daily. Turkish leaders think “Washington will ask Turkey to play the leading role in Syria,” Taspinar argued. “The Turkish perception is that, as in Libya, Washington will want to ‘lead from behind.’ In Syria this means Washington will ‘outsource’ the bulk of military operations to Ankara. Simply put, Turkey doesn’t want to ‘own’ the crisis.”

The Obama administration is having no luck directing international outrage. Russia and China remain unmoved by Assad’s brutality. With U.S. elections looming in November, there’s almost no chance the White House will push for tougher measures between now and then. Washington should not expect more from Ankara in the meantime. And if it wants to act in the future, Erdogan and others will need to be convinced that all powers will share the risk. No power can “lead from behind” in Syria. The stakes are too high.

Tell me what you think.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Turkey Can “Lead from Behind” Too

  1. Robert

    I know this isn’t the main point of your article but I believe you are overestimating the impact that the Syrian death toll has had on Turkish sensibilities and desire for change in Damascus. Turkey wants a stable Syria in order to avoid refugees and instability along the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey was perfectly willing to work with Assad so long as there weren’t refugees pouring into Turkey and Assad wasn’t supporting the PKK. I think it’s less the violence of the Syrian regime towards its citizens and more the consequences of the violence (instability in Turkey) that are driving the Turkish response.

    You also failed to mention the Kurds at all which I think is one of the major issues driving relations at this point. The instability along the border has helped the PKK to grow by providing them with safe areas along the Syrian border. Syrian weakness or connivance, or both, allows this, both of which would encourage Turkey to push for regime change.

  2. All good points, Robert. “Turkish officials fear Syrian-sponsored terrorism” was my clumsy way of papering over the PKK issue. But you’re right: it deserves more attention, and should have been included here. Turkish officials are now convinced the Syrians are aiding the PKK. More attacks or larger attacks inside Turkey could drive the public toward approving intervention. Also, regarding the body count, I we largely agree. Erdogan’s populist streak requires that he make big speeches. But until Turkey suffers more from the Syrian uprisings–or the US decides it must enlist Turkey’s help to degrade Syria’s killing machine–then the Turks will wait it out. That said, it seems like Assad’s crackdown and the refugee problem go hand-in-hand. They’re not so easy to separate.

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