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April 15, 2012, Sunday

Turkey needs a plan B

Last week, the Turkish office of the German foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), organized a workshop on Turkey’s activism in the Middle East.

As usual, head of the FES Turkey office Michael Meier and his team did a first-class job in bringing together a large number of experts. This helped the participants understand the many ongoing regional developments. Listening to experts from many countries, both from the region and the West, I was convinced that Turkey should immediately devise a plan B on several issues and do so quickly for the Syrian crisis. Some recent developments have made it quite obvious that Turkey needs an alternate plan.

We are now in a post-American regional order in the Middle East. This gap has created a lot of room for countries in the region to maneuver for power, including Syria. All regional actors should keep in mind that now there is no rule-maker or rule-enforcer in the Middle East. Referring to this power vacuum, Husam Zomlot, the executive deputy commissioner for Fatah’s Commission for International Affairs, told us that Turkey is needed in Syria now. But Turkey’s leverage is limited. One critical lesson from the Arab Spring is that Turkey has limited capacity for military deterrence.

It is an exaggeration to point to the US presidential election as the explanation for the current lack of US involvement in Syria. Indeed, the election is a major limitation on President Barack Obama’s ability to act in the region. But it cannot be the whole story. The real story is linked to Israel, which is not very keen on regime change in Damascus. Israel prefers a weakened Assad. Similarly, it has yet to be explicitly shown that the US itself wants regime change in Damascus.

The Syrian crisis is now a Kurdish crisis. As Cale Salih, an expert from the International Crisis Group, said at the conference, the rift in northern Syria is now between pro-Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Kurds and anti-PKK Kurds. According to Salih, Turkey’s strategy of supporting the Kurdish National Council, which is composed of more traditional Kurdish groups -- against the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political offshoot of the PKK in Syria -- might also be counterproductive, since the former also demands autonomous rights for Kurds. Moreover, Salih noted that northern Iraq’s Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani would never cut relations with other Kurds, including the PKK. It is ironic that Turkey, a country that boasts of being the most democratic state in the region, is seeing a country like Syria play the Kurdish card against Ankara. Careful thought should be given to why Turkey is failing to generate a soft-power effect in the other Kurdish regions.

Finally, the Syrian crisis is almost one year old. If it continues until the end of the year, there is a serious risk that it may turn into a protracted situation as in Iraq. Thus, it is vital for Turkey to devise an action plan to prepare for the possibility that the Syrian crisis will continue for another year.

Although the need for a plan B is obvious, creating one is fraught with challenges. But there are some issues that are normal to consider when putting together a plan B. For example, Turkey should immediately devise a new -- and this time, effective -- Kurdish initiative that might even incorporate Kurds in Iraq and Syria. So far, Turkey’s Kurdish initiatives, though important and positive, have been rather symbolic. The Kurdish crisis in Turkey requires structural reforms, such as a radical administrative reform that may even have shades of federalism. Similarly, it might be a wise strategy to transfer some part of the Syrian political opposition to another country, like Libya, Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

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