Although Ankara and the official discourse of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) will not admit this point, the days when Turkey saw itself as the most important “central” player, able to reshape the region in its own vision of economic interdependence and regional security under Turkish leadership, are now history. The actions of Damascus in dealing with the uprising and the rejection of any reformist trajectory recommended by Ankara during the early stages of the rebellion have clearly shown the limits of Turkish leverage with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Unlike what most critics argue, the Syrian crisis is not a failure for Turkey’s zero-problems strategy. The zero-problems strategy was the right one to pursue with Syria. Between 2002 and 2010, this policy paid high diplomatic, economic and political dividends. The real mistake was the naive belief that Turkey could radically change Syria. In other words, Ankara exaggerated what its soft power over Damascus could achieve. It was particularly absurd to believe that Turkey could replace Iran’s influence over Syria. Ankara failed to understand the balance of power in Damascus and how the regime would react in the face of an existential crisis.
The second lesson of the Syrian crisis for Turkey is related to the Kurdish question. What is unfolding in the Kurdish regions of Syria and the panic in Turkey about the emergence of a pro-Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) region at its southern border clearly shows that the Kurdish question remains Turkey’s Achilles heel. Simply put, Turkey wasted the last four years by not democratizing its Constitution and political system in order to address the root causes of its own Kurdish conflict. A more democratic, decentralized and reformist Turkey would have come much closer to “solving” the Kurdish problem at home.
Unless Turkey manages to urgently address the root causes of the Kurdish problem at home, Ankara will remain vulnerable and regional actors will always exploit this weakness. Turkey’s chances to project political, economic, diplomatic and military influence in its neighborhood depend on its ability to first solve its own ethnic issue.
The third lesson emerging for Turkey with regards to Syria is related to sectarianism. Before the Syrian crisis unfolded, Turkey tried hard to transcend the Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide in the Middle East. For instance, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went to Iraq last year, he became the first leader of a predominantly Sunni country to visit the holy sites in Najaf. Erdoğan also spent two hours with the most important Shiite cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The crisis in Syria, however, put an end to this positive image of Turkey. Today, Turkey is perceived in the region and by its own population as primarily a Sunni actor that is particularly close to the Muslim Brotherhood. As The New York Times’ lead Sunday story “As Syrian War Roils, Sectarian Unrest Seeps into Turkey” indicates, this situation has major ramifications for Turkey. Here is how The New York Times sums it up: “Many Turkish Alawites, estimated at 15 million to 20 million strong and one of the biggest minorities in this country, seem to be solidly behind Syria’s embattled strongman, Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey’s government, and many Sunnis, supports the Syrian rebels. The Alawites fear the sectarian violence spilling across the border. Already, the sweltering, teeming refugee camps along the frontier are fast becoming caldrons of anti-Alawite feelings.”
One may disagree with The New York Times analysis, but it is nevertheless important to acknowledge that the Sunni vs. Alawite nature of the conflict in Syria may also inflame Turkey’s own sectarian divides. In that sense, the lessons from Syria are not confined to just the Kurdish question. With the principle that perception creates reality, let’s conclude with another excerpt from The New York Times. “Many Alawites in Turkey, especially in eastern Turkey where Alawites tend to speak Arabic and are closely connected to Alawites in Syria, are suspicious of the bigger geopolitics, and foreign policy analysts say they may have a point. The Turkish government is led by an Islamist-rooted party that is slowly but clearly trying to bring more religion, particularly Sunni Islam, into the public sphere, eschewing decades of purposefully secular rule. Alawites here find it deeply unsettling, and a bit hypocritical, that Turkey has teamed up with Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive countries in the world, and Qatar, a religious monarchy, both Sunni, to bring democracy to Syria.”