Turkey’s options in Syria (I) – by ÖMER TAŞPINAR
|It has become a common refrain to argue that the options for the United States and the international community in Syria range from bad to worse. There is simply no silver bullet or magic solution to the sectarian divide of Syria.|
|And it looks like things will have to get much worse before they get better. In other words, the death toll will probably have to substantially increase before there is more serious pressure to do something. Yet, given the political calendar in the US and the absence of appetite for putting boots on the ground “doing something” in Syria is likely to amount to half-hearted efforts, in the form of humanitarian intervention. A crucial part of the problem is that Syria, not unlike Iraq, is a post-colonial state with artificial boundaries and no sense of nationhood. Tribal and sectarian divisions are the norm. There are no legitimate state institutions, no organic links between state and citizen, no tradition of power-sharing. In many ways, like Iraq, Syria is a weak state with no corresponding “nation.” Under such circumstances, what happened in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq could easily happen in Syria, in the form of a sectarian civil war that will decimate hundreds of thousands. As in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia will be fighting a proxy war and innocent civilians will pay the price.
What will be the main driver of Turkish policy in Syria? The short answer is the famous phrase “Events, my dear boy” — former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan’s tongue-in-cheek answer when he was asked what was the biggest challenge facing him as a leader. There seem to be four different ways the events in Syria could evolve. I will evaluate the first two scenarios in this article and focus on the other two next week.
In the first scenario Bashar al-Assad manages to muddle through and maintains his hold on power, despite growing pockets of resistance. Bashar’s units continue their crackdown. The rate of killing does not exceed a daily average 15 to 50 people. Damascus makes cosmetic reforms and promises. Under this scenario, which more or less reflects the conditions on the ground today, Turkey’s Syria policy will also be more of the same.
The main drivers of Turkey’s Syria policy will not change. These drivers can be summarized as first, the Kurdish problem at home. Ankara is highly concerned about Damascus and Tehran’s capacity to play the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) card. Second, Turkey is highly reluctant to confront Iran and Russia because of Syria. Let’s not forget that Turkey depends on Iran and Russia for close to 85 percent of its energy needs. Third, Turkey is concerned about Washington “leading from behind” and thus “outsourcing” the bulk of military operations to Ankara. Turkey doesn’t want to “own” the crisis.
Given all this, if Bashar muddles through, Turkey will maintain its current position: Ankara will show reluctance to act and lead without maximum multilateral support and international legitimacy. It will continue to call for international conferences such as the one in Tunis and will draw a clear line between military intervention and humanitarian intervention. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will continue to call for Bashar to step down, but Ankara will also seek to maintain lines of communication with the regime by keeping the Turkish ambassador in Damascus. In short, the longer Bashar stays in power, the more Turkey will attempt to hedge its Syria policy. A difficult coexistence will become inevitable.
In the second scenario, Bashar escalates the violence to unprecedented levels. He maintains his hold on power in Damascus but he is losing control in almost half the country. There are growing targeted attacks against the regime in Damascus and Aleppo. The Alewite top brass steps up the crackdown and the death toll reaches a daily average of 100 people for months. Sectarian killings begin between Sunni and Alewite factions. Most importantly, because of such escalating violence, there are now thousands of refugees at the Turkish border.
What will Turkey do under this scenario? Faced with a refugee crisis Ankara will establish a buffer zone inside Syria near the Turkish border. If there is a new United Nations Security Council resolution, turning this buffer zone into a safe haven for the Syrian opposition will become option. Ankara will also be ready to support air operations to protect the safe haven — as long as the mission is led by a “regional force,” composed of NATO and with Arab League support. Turkey will also support joint efforts at arming the Syrian opposition, ideally with covert operations. In return for such stepped-up military efforts, Turkey will demand that the United States take decisive military action against PKK strongholds in northern Iraq. We will continue to discuss Turkey’s policy options with the third and fourth scenarios next week.