Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Turkey: Lessons From the Syrian Crisis?

by Elliott Abrams
September 14, 2012

A recent story in the Washington Post suggested that the excitement in recent years about Turkish domination of the Middle East, neo-Ottomanism, and neo-imperialism is now coming to an end.

For several years, most assessments were of ever-growing Turkish power. “If Turkey plays its cards right, it could…even become the dominant power in the region,” one leading analyst said in January of this year. “The scene is set for Turkey to become a major regional power,” said another in 2010. “If Russia weakens, Turkey emerges as the dominant power in the region, including the eastern Mediterranean,” concluded a 2009 analysis. Many other examples could be given.

But Turkey has proved unable to throw its weight around successfully even in neighboring Syria. Consider these excerpts from that Post article:

Turkey, a rising heavyweight in the Muslim world, has led the international campaign to oust the regime in next-door Syria. But as the fighting drags on, Turkey is complaining that the United States and others have left it abandoned on the front line of a conflict that is bleeding across its border.

[A]s opinion polls indicate declining domestic support for the government’s stance, Turkey is finding it has limited room to manage fallout that analysts say it did not anticipate when it turned against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last year.

“Ankara now realizes that it doesn’t have the power to ­rearrange — forget it in the region, but also not in Syria,” said Gokhan Bacik, director of the Middle East Strategic Research Center at Turkey’s Zirve University. “So Ankara desperately needs American support. But American support is not coming.”

When a U.S. delegation visited late last month, the Turks made the case they had made two weeks earlier to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a senior administration official said: They were overwhelmed with Syrians, and they wanted the United States and others to establish safe areas, protected by a no-fly zone, for them inside Syria.

What the Turks have found out, the hard way, is that their influence should not be exaggerated. They have failed in Syria, and appear to believe this was because they did not have U.S. support. (I agree with their critique of U.S. policy, but that is another subject.) As the White House is fond of citing Mr. Obama’s very close personal relationship with Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one has to wonder what Erdogan makes of this lack of support.

The current, difficult period of U.S.-Turkish relations began when Turkey refused its cooperation to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has been exacerbated by Turkish attitudes and actions regarding Israel. Now the Turks are re-learning that the United States is a very valuable ally to have, and this may point to opportunities for a better relationship in the future. If Turkey sees itself now not as the dominant power in its region but as a very important player, aware of its limitations and desirous of close cooperation with the United States, perhaps the close alliance of past decades-which was so valuable to the United States-can be rebuilt.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Amjad of Arabia

    Turkey’s U-turn on Syrian refugees (barring any new refugees in, and forcing those living in cities near the Syrian border to either move north,move to a refugee camp or move back to Syria) is nothing short of disastrous for the Syrian Revolution.

    The northern part of Syria was the only place that could have evolved into something approaching a safe-haven for the FSA and their families. Now that the Turkish government has taken the first steps towards dismantling the revolution’s support network near the borders, the revolutionaries will be hard pressed to ensure the wounded get the care they need, and that refugees have an area they can feel safe in. Erdogan’s decision is nothing short of capitulation to the Assad regime.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    Don’t look for Obama to do anything overtly to make this alliance come back to life . His “foreign policy” is to vote “present” … Which is to say “No policy at all” .

  • Posted by Sam Palmer

    Yes, looks like the US wanted to teach Turkey a lesson but I can also think of two reasons for lack of support:
    1. Elections:
    If Obama wins, I think the US support will be more; but If Romney wins I am not sure what will happen because I don’t believe any remarks made by Romney, especially related to Middle East.

    2. Jewish influence on the US government:
    This is also partially tied to the elections. But beyod that, as surfaced several times, Israel and it supporters in the US want to force Turkey to mend its relations with Israel without meeting the 3 conditions they have stated.

    As I read the press today, Prime Minister Erdogan rejected such requests/pressures and that means no US support, at least not until after the elections. Assad will eventually fall. The longer it takes the higher price Turkey will pay.

  • Posted by Marcus

    The Americans don’t like to be double crossed. The Turkey said no to American at the time of the Iraqi invasion so now Turkey has to pay the price.

    Anybody who thinks that the Kurds are going to go away in dreaming. The Kurds can only get stronger.

    Unfortunately because of Turkey’s past policies she now must pay the price. There isn’t one neighbour who has any sympathy for her.

    They are all sitting on the side lines clapping.

  • Posted by neville craig

    Turkey has had two target zones to build influence – Arab and Turkic, and they are succeeding commercially in the former.

    This seems to be replacing their EU aspirations which they realise are blocked by Germany seeking to avoid the huge (Gastarbeiter and children) pension charge from their joining.
    The EU eventually realised that the US was trying to offload its massive bank lending to Turkey onto European banks.

    New policy has freed Turkey to become more Islamic and in the background is the indoctrination by the Gulen Movement.
    Many of the next generation of Turkey’s leaders are being prepared in its little-mentioned private boarding schools.
    They may turn out more Salafi than Sufi, and that’s the risk.

    The consequences are greater for the Kurds (less chance the PKK will get an independent ‘Kurdistan’?) and Greek-speaking Cypriots (on Kissinger’s ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’), than for Israel.

  • Posted by guney

    I think the reason of turkey’s fail in syria and generaly in middle east is the lack of a logical strategy and true perspective in turkeys rulling party. İnstead of bearing the mission of being a role modal in middle east as the only secular and democratic muslim country, erdoğan and his government have choosen to approach middle east from a sectarian point and tried to form and lead a sunni bloc. For instance, İnstead of blaming alawites for the crisis in Syria and supporting extreme Al Kajde connected sunni groups like Al Nusra, if erdoğan and his government made an effort on forming a more secular and western type of syrian opposition, ı think the things might have been in Syria.

  • Posted by guney

    I think the reason of turkey’s fail in syria and generaly in middle east is the lack of a logical strategy and true perspective in turkeys rulling party. İnstead of bearing the mission of being a role modal in middle east as the only secular and democratic muslim country, erdoğan and his government have choosen to approach middle east from a sectarian point and tried to form and lead a sunni bloc. For instance, İnstead of blaming alawites for the crisis in Syria and supporting extreme Al Kajde connected sunni groups like Al Nusra, if erdoğan and his government made an effort on forming a more secular and western type of syrian opposition, ı think the things might have been different in Syria.

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