The first challenge to note in this regard is that Turkey’s neighborly relations with Russia and Iran might be negatively affected by the Russian and Iranian support to Assad. The question that confronts Turkish decision makers at this critical juncture is how to reconcile Turkey’s pro-democracy oriented position on the Arab Spring in general and the crisis in Syria in particular with Turkey’s burgeoning commercial and strategic relations with traditional Realpolitik foreign policy actors as Russia and Iran.
It is already known that Russia and Iran have proved to be in support of the pre-Arab Spring status quo in the Middle East and therefore adopted highly skeptical attitude towards the democratic movements sweeping through the entire region. The fear on their part is that if the current regime in Syria were replaced by a more representative one following the use of force by Syrian opposition forces aided by the international community, this might constitute a bad precedent for themselves. The authorization of use of force by the United Nations will likely pave the way for future military operations in other places whenever the international community questioned the legitimacy of incumbent regimes there. The paradox facing Turkish rulers here is how to be in good terms with the countries whose rulers suffer from legitimacy problems at home and view democratization processes abroad through alarming eyes.
The second challenge is that Turkey might be pushed by the international community to lead a military operation against Assad. As of today, Turkish rulers are saying that Turkey is against any international military operation against Assad unless it is legitimized by the United Nations Security Council and overwhelmingly supported by the Arab countries in the Middle East. However, this stance might not be easy to maintain for long given that the number of dead in Syria is radically increasing and the Arab League has been pushing for regime change. The challenge facing Turkish rulers here is how to reconcile Turkey’s image as a soft power and source of inspiration in the Middle East and that Turkey takes a lead-role in a military operation.
Third, Turkey’s relations with the United States and the leading members of the European Union as France might be affected by Turkey’s stance on the use of force. It is known that the Obama administration is now in a difficult position as the presidential elections in the United States are approaching. Given that Obama has withdrawn US forces from Iraq, started the withdrawal process from Afghanistan by setting clear datelines and led from behind in Libya, it would be naïve to expect that the US would get directly involved in a military operation against Assad. Instead, analysts expect that the US would go for a supporting role during the election season and in times of economic hardships. On the other hand, France seems to have been very active in North Africa and Middle East over the last year and Sarkozy might have already calculated that his chance of re-election to presidency might increase if Paris played the key role in the toppling of Assad regime and subsequently in the installation of a new Syrian administration in line with democratic principles. The challenge facing Turkish rulers here is how to continue the positive spiral in relations with the United States while eschewing the use of force in Syria in principle. Turkey’s desire to play a leading role in its neighborhood and checking the regional aspirations of former colonial powers as France might also experience a setback so long as Turkish rulers believe that it is still possible to be in good terms with everybody as well as thrive on the dividends of Turkey’s soft power capabilities.
If Turkish rulers are still supportive of the idea that Turkey’s mission and responsibility in the Middle East is to help institute a new regional order, which would be more legitimate, authentic, just and representative than the current one, Ankara would do well to explain its roadmap in Syria. Saying that Turkey is against the use of force is not an option.
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Tarık OGUZLU, ORSAM Middle East Advisor, Antalya International University