Part of the challenge for the government's Syria strategy is striking the right balance between realism and idealism. Some may argue that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has passed the point of adopting a realistic strategy and that it is too deeply involved in the Syrian quagmire with its moralistic ideals. Especially the AKP's critics in the realist camp (some are traditional Kemalists, some are not) argue that Turkey should never have pursued an activist policy in Syria on the grounds of “being on the right side of history.” They blame the government for adopting the grandiose neo-Ottoman discourse of a regional superpower without paying enough attention to its actual capacity and limits. Realism, in their eyes, means nonintervention in the domestic affairs of a neighbor, especially if you have certain domestic vulnerabilities that can be exploited. In that sense, they believe the AKP should have known that by intervening so blatantly in the Syrian crisis it would open itself to retaliation.
Hosting the military opposition to a government is a very serious challenge to that government and its allies. As a result, Ankara should have expected that Damascus and Tehran would do their best to retaliate against Turkey by targeting Turkey's Achilles heel. Pursuing such a hawkish Syria policy at a time when Turkey was so vulnerable on the Kurdish front was a major strategic mistake. This is a legitimate criticism of the AKP's policy. Equally legitimate is the point of credibility and discourse. When you raise the bar too high with a highly ambitious narrative, you are bound to create disappointments. Modesty is an important virtue. But the AKP's foreign policy discourse was characterized by a total absence of modesty in the last few years. To the contrary, there was a constant reference to Turkey's growing influence, strategic reach, economic power and its role as a “central” player able to control, shape and contain all the dynamics in the region. Not surprisingly, this has created huge expectations from Ankara. Especially from the perspective of the Obama administration, the Turkish insistence on “regional solutions to regional problems” was very much welcomed.
In the eyes of Washington, Turkey finally had an opportunity to display its much acclaimed power and influence in the Syrian crisis. The Obama administration and the entire Arab world had high expectations from Turkey in terms of showing leadership and exerting soft and hard power. This was after the “central” country, the regional superpower, claimed to know all there is to know and to be in control of all events. Ankara can also be recalled talking about “regional solutions to regional problems.” Syria in that sense was Turkey's moment and its opportunity to shine. But whenever Washington asked Turkey what its strategy was, most of what it received was a list of complaints indicating that the US should take a much more active leadership position.
To be fair, the Syrian crisis is too complex and daunting as a challenge for Turkey. It is unrealistic to expect Turkey to “solve” this problem when Iran, Russia, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have so much at stake. Yet, it is also becoming increasingly clear that Syria has exposed the limits of Turkish influence in the region. Worse, Syria has also exposed the degree to which Turkey is vulnerable at home because of its own Kurdish problem. It is absolutely crucial for Turkey to be aware of such weaknesses before adopting a policy of diplomatic or military escalation. It is also high time for Turkey to tone down its discourse and show more humility. If not, the gap between narrative and capacity will keep hurting Turkey's credibility.