COLUMNISTS
EMRE USLU
Removing Turkey from scene would help Syrian opposition
Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, Turkey has taken an active role in moves to topple the regime in its neighboring country. Turkey is not only actively engaged in the Syrian crisis, but it has also become one of the most vocal critics of the Syrian regime. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the first leader who called on Bashar al-Assad to step down.

It is no secret that Turkey was expecting that the Assad regime would not stay much longer and hoped that Turkey would be on the side of the winners when the Syrian regime was gone. Ironically, Turkey took this step on the basis of a new foreign policy initiative of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu which involves “anticipating the future” and intervening before developments get out of control. The Turkish anticipation of Syria’s future became such that Turkey miscalculated the Assad regime’s durability and underestimated Assad’s international support and his position within the country.

Given the fact that Turkish-Syrian relations in the last 10 years were so close and the two countries just a few months before the crisis had a strategic meeting of their cabinets, the world community was hoping that the Turkish prediction of Syria’s next moves would be the most accurate. In addition, the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and the country’s Foreign Ministry were claiming that they knew Syria as accurately as they knew their own country. Thus, Turkish sources not only misled the policymakers in Ankara but also misled the Western world when they made an incorrect prediction regarding the strength of the Assad regime.

Based on this failure, Turkey has established an erroneous policy position, thus adopting a policy of presenting the most vocal critique of Assad while trying to change the Syrian regime by whatever means.

Since Turkey has become the country at the forefront of attempting to build a coalition against the Syrian regime, Turkey has become the battleground and center of the international confrontations between states that support and states that oppose the Syrian regime. Leading one camp are Iran and Russia, and leading the other camp are the US and Western countries, with both camps confronting one another on Turkish soil.

Interestingly enough, for Russia and Iran, punishing the Turkish government and Turkey has become a central element of their policies for saving the Syrian regime. It seems that Russia and Iran calculate that as long as the Assad regime stays put in Damascus, Erdoğan’s position in Ankara will weaken.

For Russia, since Ankara has allowed NATO radar bases to be installed in Turkey, Ankara needs to be punished. Therefore, supporting the Assad regime equally means punishing the Erdoğan government in Ankara. Therefore, just for the sake of punishing Turkey for its decision to allow NATO radar bases in Turkey, Russia will continue to support the Assad regime.

For Iran, it’s much the same reason; Turkey, by allowing NATO radar bases to be installed in its territory, has become the number one target for Iran’s interest. It is no secret that Iranian generals have threatened Turkey many times, saying that if Iran is attacked, the first target they will attack is the NATO radar bases in Turkey’s Malatya province.

Therefore, for the same reason -- just to punish Turkey -- Iran, too, will continue to support the Assad regime because as long as this regime maintains its power, it negatively affects Turkey and the Erdoğan government.

Since Erdoğan become a vocal opponent of the Assad regime, in order to diminish Erdoğan’s credibility in the eyes of Arabs and Turks alike, and therefore erode his credit and perhaps end his term in the coming election, Russia and Iran will continue to support Assad.

If the Assad regime holds on to power for two or more years, at least until the 2014 elections in Turkey, no doubt it will affect election results in Turkey, perhaps diminishing Erdoğan’s image as a leader who stands by his word.

Since Turkey has become the focal point for an international confrontation between Russia-Iran and the mainly Western bloc, it would be wise for Turkey and for the Syrian opposition to lower the tone of its criticism towards the Syrian regime and support the opposition mainly on a practical level. Perhaps providing the opposition with training, supplying humanitarian aid, etc. would be more helpful to Syrian opposition groups than Erdoğan’s empty promises.

If Turkey’s aim is to remove Assad’s regime from power, Turkey should not be at the center of the debate in international politics. Turkey should be removed from the scene and become the invisible supporter of the Syrian opposition.

I understand the fact that Erdoğan’s strong personality and ego would not allow for Turkish diplomacy to adopt such invisible diplomacy; however, the international community should see the fact that as long as Turkey is on the scene, Russia and Iran, in addition to having other reasons, will -- just for the sake of punishing Turkey -- continue to support the Assad regime.

It is likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin will show his distrust toward Erdoğan during Erdoğan’s visit to Moscow this week. To take his revenge for the NATO radar decision, Putin is likely to “teach a diplomatic lesson” to Erdoğan during his visit to Moscow.

For the sake of Turkish interests and the Syrian opposition, I think it would be a good decision to remove Turkey from the scene and find alternative methods of supporting the Syrian opposition by not making Turkey a clear target for Russia and Iran.

2012-07-18