Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute put it well in his recent New Republic article, “Why Turkey hasn’t intervened in Syria.” Ankara is trying to “lead from behind.” Sounds familiar, right? Clearly, both the US and Turkey have steered clear of military options so far. But they also haven’t ruled anything out. The US wants Turkey to take the lead and Turkey wants the US to do it. No one is willing to do the dirty job without a major commitment from the other. Welcome to the new Middle East with a new Turkey and a new US.
Both US and Turkey are going through a transition and this affects their respective attitudes in Syria. The efficiency-seeking and humbler new US is now more careful with its military moves, especially after two less-than-rewarding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new Turkey as an emboldened regional leader, on the other hand, talks the talk, but cannot always walk the walk. Diplomatic coordination between Ankara and Washington may be at its best. They both press the international community hard for humanitarian assistance. But disagreements on the timing and scope of a possible military intervention persist.
For the new US, which has been gradually distancing itself from the quagmires of the Middle East, Syria is perceived as another adventure with little national security return and no clear exit strategy. What happens if and when the regime falls is a big question in Washington. Some Republicans may now be pressuring the Obama administration to militarily intervene. However, if an Islamist regime that is confrontational with Israel emerges, they would quickly turn against it. Upcoming presidential elections are a major complicating factor. Democrats do not want to put US boots on the ground especially during this highly polarized campaigning period. After all, the nation as a whole is not too enthusiastic about new foreign military commitments. In the eyes of most Americans, Syria is not worth the blood and money.
As for the new Turkey, who increasingly cares about its neighborhood, a sense of urgency and the national interest are stronger on Syria. But Turks are not willing to commit militarily without a broad-based international cooperation. Even if such a coalition is formed, Ankara stays away from being executioner-in-chief. This is partly due to fears that use of the military might ruin Turkey’s shiny soft power image and invoke nationalistic reactions in the region. Syria’s PKK card is trouble, not to mention wrestling with other complications with Iran and Russia. Plus, tensions between the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan administration and the military bureaucracy make life difficult. Some Justice and Development Party (AK Party) people are worried about booby traps, which might lead to political insecurity. The main Turkish opposition parties categorically reject any military role in Syria.
It’s interesting to watch how the dynamics between Turkey and the US on Syria have changed over the time. They were not on the same page when Turkey pursued engagement, as opposed to the Bush administration’s policy of isolation. At the initial phases of the revolt, Turks were more optimistic that they could convince Assad to enact reforms, but the Obama administration was skeptical. Then Turkey got frustrated and tuned out to be even bolder than the US. Right now many in Ankara’s national security circles seem increasingly comfortable with the idea of an international military involvement, provided that Turks are not on the forefront. But this time Americans are lukewarm because they might end up carrying a considerable portion of the burden. It is as if the US is telling Turkey: “It was you who asked for regional leadership. Here it is. Let’s see what you can handle. Things are not easy, right? Do you understand us better now and how it feels assuming a leadership role?” In response, Turkey is saying: “Okay, I’m ready to commit but we must share responsibilities. Did I ever claim I was a super power?”
Foreign military intervention in domestic conflicts is always the worst option. I hope things never come to that point in Syria. But realistically speaking, unless the pro-democracy resistance is totally silenced by regime forces or in the unlikely event that Assad suddenly becomes an angel, military options will remain on the table. Without securing the situation militarily, even exclusively humanitarian initiatives alone cannot be implemented, given the regime’s unyielding attitude. That’s why several “friends of Syria,” including the US and Turkey, are making contingency plans that involve the military. We will see if the participants of an upcoming international summit in İstanbul can come up with broader and bolder initiatives. Sometimes the mere hint of military use, even if (and hopefully) it’s not realized, can push authoritarian regimes to more accommodating positions.
For now, leading behind the Arab League and other friends of Syria is the most politically correct option for both the US and Turkey, although the prospects for the end result are dim. After the US elections in November, the Obama administration might have more flexibility. As for the Turks, given the justifiable anti-interventionist mood in the nation, it’s not very likely for them to go it alone. But when the push kicks in, Ankara might assume a subsidiary military role, perhaps similar to the NATO operation in Libya. That might occur sooner if hundreds of thousands of refugees flock into Turkey or Assad turns his brutal manhunt to genocide.