The Turkish government’s tepid response to the car bombings in Reyhanli last Friday should help bring to a merciful end the prevailing meme in Washington that Ankara is poised to lead the Middle East. Rather than providing leadership and a source of stability in the region, Turkey is now a party to regional conflicts, especially the civil war in Syria. It is true that Turkey did not necessarily seek the position that it now finds itself in, but the mismatch between its grand ambitions and Ankara’s capacity to provide order to the Middle East contributed mightily to its problems. Despite all the talk of models and rising to the level of U.S. traditional allies in Europe—code for the United Kingdom and France—over the last few years, Turkey, like a variety of other countries in the region, needs rescuing.
In what seems like Cold War redux, Washington and Moscow are stepping in to do what they can to prevent the Syrian conflict from engulfing the region. Although Washington and Ankara have shared interests in Syria and other regional hotspots, the United States and Russia are likely to pursue a political solution to the Syrian civil war—Turkey’s most pressing foreign (and suddenly domestic) policy problem that is consistent with its interests. Since the summer of 2011 after trying in vain to persuade Bashar al Assad to reform and negotiate—two things the Syrian leader was never going to do—the Turkish leadership has consistently called for Assad’s ouster and the end of the regime he leads. It is a principled position, but not one that is likely to serve Ankara well if the United States and Russia preside over a political solution in Syria that includes regime figures, if not members of Assad’s inner circle. Although Erdogan remains a popular figure among the Syrian opposition, leaving former regime players in place will likely complicate Ankara’s efforts to be a player in post-Assad Syria. Some observers have suggested that the Turks (as well as the Saudis and Qataris) would be able to “kiss and make-up” with the regime holdovers or even Assad should he prevail, but this is a profound misreading of Erdogan who does not forgive and forget easily. Just ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Iraq’s leader, Nouri Kamal al Maliki.
It would be extremely difficult for Erdogan to be magnanimous toward Assad or his supporters after 80,000 Syrians have died and a staggering ten percent of Syria’s population has been displaced, including anywhere from 322,845 refugees (at the time of writing) who have found safe haven in Turkey. In addition, before Friday’s bombing Assad has killed approximately nineteen Turks, dropped ordinance on Turkish territory, allegedly shot down a Turkish surveillance jet operating in international waters, and is believed to be behind the Reyhanli bombings with forty-six dead and at least one-hundred injured. And yet, with the exception of the artillery barrages in October 2012, the Turks have let Assad get away with these provocations. Turkey is in the worst of all possible positions: Unable to corral the opposition; at odds with its ostensible partners, Riyadh and Doha; it has become a party to Syria’s civil war, but is unable to respond to Bashar al Assad’s periodic taunts because Erdogan’s Syria policy is generally unpopular in Turkey. With all of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s eloquence about history endowing Turkey with special responsibilities in the region, the caution associated with Ataturk’s “Peace at Home, Peace in the World” still makes sense to many Turks.
One could argue that much of what has befallen Turkey in Syria is not of Ankara’s own doing, which is partly true, but it still was not supposed to be this way. Turkey, with the 16th largest economy in the world, has historical and cultural legacies in the region that were assets, a political and economic system that is attractive to Arabs, and its use of soft-power galore was going to be a regional problem solver and economic engine, making it another Turkish century in the Middle East and in the process relieving the United States of some of the burdens it has carried in the last six decades. Yet here we are, heading to Geneva or some other anodyne place for a peace conference under the auspices of Washington and Moscow. At best, Prime Minister Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party leadership will emerge from this episode with egg on their faces but with enough of their position intact to help implement whatever solution (if one materializes) the big powers coerce out of the players in Syria’s tragedy. At worst, it will reveal once again the hollowness of their aspirations and dependence on great power patrons. The saving grace for Erdogan is that he has no credible domestic political opposition capable of capitalizing on his foreign policy problems—the main opposition Republican People’s Party supports Bashar al Assad. Consequently, Syria may have put only a small dent in Erdogan’s domestic political aura, but it should smash Washington’s incongruent belief in “Turkey’s rise as a regional power.”