Until now, most of my analyses about the Syrian conflict stressed the role of the global balance of power; thus, I’ve received some harsh criticism.
These critics are partly justified, but one has to admit that this conflict is multifaceted and that the rivalry between global powers is an important part of it.
When there is domestic unrest in a country, foreign powers that are unhappy about the existing government try to profit from this situation. This doesn’t mean that opposition movements are always manipulated or oriented by foreign actors. In today’s conditions, no foreign power has the ability to motivate or trick an entire nation. Nevertheless, every domestic actor has some foreign relations, and in a time of crisis they try to use those relationships to help their cause. These relationships are sometimes constructive, but sometimes they pave the way for foreign players’ sinister plans.
What has been happening on Turkey’s doorstep in recent months is no different. The number of actors involved in the Syrian conflict is considerably high. Besides, what the foreign media are calling “opponents” or “loyalists” are not homogeneous groups. The bloodbath continues, and the roadmap of the actors involved is constantly changing, making it impossible to make pertinent analyses about the near future. In this volatile context, one shouldn’t expect Turkey to have static policies or standards.
Turkey has declared that the guiding principle of its diplomacy is to be “on the side of the people.” This policy is the result of the crucial transformation witnessed in Turkey’s domestic policy: the dismantling of the tutelage system. Nevertheless, the government’s will to be on the side of the people is unconvincing since necessary reforms within the country such as to the rights of Turkish citizens of Kurdish, Alevi and non-Muslim origin have still not been realized. That’s why some people, both inside and outside the country, are accusing the government of not supporting all people, but only some specific groups. They keep asking why Turkey pursues relatively good relations with authoritarian governments in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Sudan and even Russia, and why in those countries Turkey doesn’t support the “people.”
After all, one has to be realistic. In foreign policy, the difference between what should be done and what can be done is often big. All states have their own expectations and interests, which is why they sometimes cooperate with regimes and leaders they don’t like. Sometimes this cooperation is useful for the oppressed, too; by establishing ties you can obtain some sort of leverage over the authoritarian regimes. Besides, people can always change their regimes when conditions are right, and they can also ask for foreign assistance to overthrow their repressive governments. However, there is also one important detail: No one can guarantee that change will bring happiness.
When Turkey reiterates that it cares about the Syrian people and not about the Syrian government, it wants to say that there is no longer any way to cooperate with Bashar al-Assad. However, Turkey should be more careful not to give the impression that it supports only the Sunni opponents. This becomes important when you remember that not too long ago Turkey made a proposal to all the countries in the region, regardless of their religious inclinations, to establish a free trade area.
The latter idea reflected the one principle that Turkey should never abandon in its foreign policy: encouraging interdependence between societies and states, and supporting regional changes that are compatible with the global system’s dynamics, while establishing areas of stability in its near geography.