Barbara Slavin IPS
WASHINGTON, Jun 17, 2011 (IPS) - As thousands of Syrian refugees pour over the Turkish border, the just re- elected government in Ankara is confronting the limits of its "no problems" policy toward its neighbours.
Despite massive interaction with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and deepening Turkish involvement in the Syrian economy, Turkey is coming to terms with the prospect of a long, bloody civil war in Syria and the possible toppling of the Assad regime.
Increasingly, Turkey also finds itself on the opposite side of Iran on regional questions and competing for influence in Syria and Iraq. Turkish efforts to mediate a resolution of the international dispute with Iran over its nuclear program appear to have come to a dead end.
In the aftermath of the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party’s re-election Sunday, analysts predict that Turkey will recalibrate its regional role.
"Syria was the cornerstone of the ‘zero problems’ foreign policy," said Omer Taspinar, director of the Turkey project at the Brookings Institution.
Speaking Wednesday at the Carnegie Foundation, another Washington think tank, Taspinar suggested that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would focus on internal problems of constitutional reform and resolving the aspirations of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, work to normalise relations with Armenia, and to define its participation in a new NATO missile defense scheme.
Taspinar said Turkey may also focus on toning down Sunni-Shia conflict in countries such as Iraq, where Erdogan recently became the first foreign Sunni leader to meet with Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite religious figure with the widest following among this branch of Islam. However, rising Sunni opposition to the Syrian Alawite regime - and continued Saudi refusal to embrace the Shiite government in Iraq - could undermine Sunni Turkey’s anti-sectarian mission.
Since coming to power in 2002, the AKP has embraced an expansive "neo-Ottoman" foreign policy. But Turkey, despite its deep knowledge of countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, was caught flat-footed like everyone else by the cascade of uprisings that have shaken the Arab world over the past six months.
It turns out that Turkey doesn’t have "that special insight" into the region, said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Turkey’s interests were "as wrapped up in the old order" as those of the United States and other countries, he said.
Cook predicted that Turkey would lose its lustre as a champion of regional issues such as the Arab- Israeli dispute. The latter role was easier for Turkey to play "when the Arab world was politically dead," he said. Now Egypt, which brokered a recent unity deal between Palestinian factions, is reassuming a leading diplomatic role.
Like the United States, Turkey’s performance in regard to the Arab uprisings has been uneven at best.
Erdogan won plaudits from Arab democrats for pivoting swiftly over Egypt and calling for the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. But Turkey hesitated too long over Libya - sparking violent protests in front of the Turkish consulate in Benghazi and criticism that Ankara was putting its substantial economic interests in Libya ahead of democratic principles.
Erdogan has been quicker to condemn Syrian human rights abuses but is conducting a "delicate high- ware balancing act", according to Taspinar, in regard to Syria - hosting the first conference of Syrian opposition forces on Turkish soil while continuing to urge Assad to reform.
Turkey’s position on Syria is similar to that of the United States, said Kadir Ustun, research director in Washington of the SETA Foundation, a Turkish think tank. Neither wants the Assad regime to fall but both worry that the regime is not capable of positive change.
A fragmentation of Syria’s complex ethnic mosaic is a frightening prospect for Turkey that could send thousands more refugees across the border on top of more than 8,000 already there. Turkey also worries about a revival of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group whose leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was expelled by Syria in 1998, paving the way for Turkish-Syrian rapprochement.
Despite the fact that Turkey - whose annual trade with Syria amounts to 2.5 billion dollars - is Syria’s largest trading partner, Ankara’s leverage in Damascus appears to be less than that of Iran, which is staunchly backing Assad’s crackdown on political dissent.
Turkey’s efforts to resolve the international quarrel with Iran over its nuclear program have also failed.
A "Tehran declaration" unveiled with much fanfare a year ago after mediation by Turkey and Brazil was rejected by the United States and its partners because it would have left Iran with more than enough enriched uranium to produce a weapon. A round of nuclear talks in Istanbul in January ended without even an agreement to meet again. Iran appears too wrapped up in its internal political divisions to engage constructively while the Obama administration is focusing on sanctions and its own re-election.
Ustun said Turkey was still committed to trying to help resolve the nuclear dispute and remains concerned about the potential for military action against Iran as well as the impact of economic sanctions. However, in the aftermath of last year’s failed diplomacy, Turkish diplomats are being more careful with Iran, Ustun said, and coordinating more closely with the United States.
Turkey is evolving from a U.S. "client state to a partner", Cook said, and has great potential to use its economic power as "an engine of growth" for emerging Arab democracies. The Arab spring, he added, is pushing Turkey into a position that "the U.S. is likely to be more comfortable with, going forward".