Turkey’s Syria Conundrum

3 August 2015

A country’s foreign policy is shaped by its identity, sense of belonging, world outlook and geographic location. This last one is a constant; others are subject to evolution, change and definition/redefinition within the limits of reason. The task of governments is to merge these with national power into policies designed to maximize national interest. It is imperative even for major countries that the conformity of these policies to international law and rules of good conduct can be reasonably defended. All of this requires realism, calm, poise, prudence, consistency and determination. A sound foreign policy’s worst enemies are rashness and bravado.

When reference is made to Turkey’s geographic location the chosen adjective is invariably “strategic”. In reality this is a “double-edged-sword”. On the one hand, Turkey can project peace, cooperation, democracy or a certain ideology and even instability to a wide region. On the other hand, Turkey is vulnerable to unrest close to its borders, all the more so in its immediate vicinity. The end of the Cold War left Turkey in the middle of new conflict areas; we paid a high price for disputes in the emergence of which we bore no responsibility. Turkey’s national interests are best served in times of peace and stability rather than turmoil as framed in Ataturk’s dictum “peace at home, peace in the world”.

Today our peace at home is in jeopardy and we certainly do not have peace in the Middle East. There is no question that Arab Spring turmoil was to impact Turkey like the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the instability in the Caucasus or the US invasion of Iraq. But we should have read it correctly and acted accordingly. Today the region is going through an era of chaos and anarchy. Turkey is faced with multiple threats to its national security. We have more than two million Syrian refugees. We have lost billions in trade. We are neighbors with the Islamic State. We no longer have ambassadors in Syria, Israel and Egypt. We face the prospect of a fragmented Syria. Despite this picture, it still hasn’t dawned upon the Government that we need to change course.

If we had only refrained from getting involved and put diplomacy squarely at the center of our Middle East policy the picture could have been dramatically, if not one hundred percent different. Unfortunately, ideology and neo-Ottoman fantasies blurred our vision.

The Iran nuclear deal should be a wake-up call for the Turkish Government. The deal has its supporters and its adversaries. But no one is denying that it is a game changer. The world now expects Iran to become an element of stability in the region and beyond. While Tehran assumes this new role Ankara cannot afford to move in the opposite direction. No doubt encouraged by the nuclear deal, there are new attempts to revive the Geneva process. The Government would be well-advised to embrace the process beyond words.

On July 30, during the daily press briefing at the US State Department, Deputy Spokesperson Mr. Mark C. Tones was asked the following question:
“Now, to the best of all data that’s available and so on, Assad – the Assad regime represents a great portion of the population. Why wouldn’t you want to model the process completely?”

His response was the following:
“… you’ve heard me and others say countless times here, I mean, Assad’s lost all credibility as a potential leader or leader of Syria. He needs to be out. He’s killed countless innocents, brought tremendous violence, created, frankly, the conditions that we find in Syria today – that is, parts of it are lawless, controlled by ISIL. We’re beating back ISIL in those parts working with the coalition members on it, but Assad is fully culpable in creating the situation that exists in Syria today. And for that reason, he can’t be part of any kind of political solution.”

I find the question relevant and I also share the criticism directed against Assad. But I strongly believe that the removal of “Assad and his circle of cronies” will not mark the end of the Syrian conflict. Preventing politics and acts of vengeance coming no matter from which side is a more important task. Equally important is giving the people of Syria the opportunity to chart their own course.

By all indications the Turkish Government remains obsessed with Assad. His removal is a priority above everything else. A country boasting its “centuries of statecraft” should not allow itself to become the hostage of any obsession other than upholding national interest.

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