Turkey faces uncontrollable risks with Syria policy
Ankara faces two worrying scenarios: continuing tense relations with Syria or the collapse of the regime.
By Ayhan Simsek for SES Türkiye -- 07/06/12
Turkey's hardline policy against the Syrian regime has so far failed to yield any effective influence on Damascus, and as escalating violence moves Syria closer to a civil war, Ankara faces a host of unpredictable risks.
A Syrian refugee girl, with a poster of Prime Minister Erdogan in the background, attends an anti-Assad protest at the Reyhanli refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border March 18th. [Reuters]
"Turkey assumed that the Assad regime would fall in a short time period and put all of its eggs in one basket," Yasar Yakis, a former Turkish foreign minister of the ruling AK Party told SES Türkiye.
"However in this kind of crisis, it is as difficult as forecasting an earthquake. Yes, Assad can fall in a short time period. But this can also take a long time," Yakis added.
Already tense relations between Turkey and neighbouring Syria hit a new low last week as Turkey and several other countries expelled Syrian diplomats in protest over the Assad regime's role in the Houla massacre, in which over 100 people were killed. Damascus hit back this week, ousting Turkish diplomats.
The AK Party long resisted Western criticism and developed very close relations with the Assad regime during the last decade. The two countries signed close to 60 agreements and even conducted a joint cabinet meeting. Ankara had hoped at the time that closer relations with Syria would allow it to exert influence that would introduce a democratic and economic transition its neighbour.
But as the anti-regime protests grew in Syria and a bloody crackdown ensued, Turkey became one of the most vocal critics of the Syrian regime, leading diplomatic initiatives and providing support to opposition groups.
According to Yakis, Turkey's decision to show strong solidarity with the people was completely right. But cutting all ties with the Assad regime, he said, resulted in Ankara losing all its leverage on Syria.
"Today, Russia is taking several initiatives to control the process of change in Syria. Turkey could have led this process more easily, if it had not cut all ties with Assad."
Now Ankara is in an extremely difficult situation, facing two worrying scenarios. "We will either see a long period of transition, where Assad will stay in power, with tense relations with Turkey. Or we will see a rapid change, the fall of the Assad regime, which will inevitably create chaos," Yakis said.
"In both scenarios, the impact on Turkey will be great," he cautioned.
An uncontrolled fall of the regime in Syria would mean the collapse of political and social structures, as well as the army, police and intelligence. If alternative structures are not created before the collapse, Syria would enter into chaos with unforeseeable negative impacts on Turkey.
Turkey's opposition is also expressing worries and has been highly critical of the government's hardline policy on Syria. "The government's Syria policy is a fiasco," main opposition CHP deputy and former ambassador Osman Koruturk told SES Türkiye.
"With this policy, Turkey has become a direct party to the internal conflict of Syria. Turkey has lost its former role as a reliable country with soft power skills, an honest broker for the conflicts in the region," he said.
According to the CHP, the government's active role in organising the Syrian opposition -- both political and armed -- has undermined Turkey's position in the broader region.
For Koruturk, a solution to the Syria crisis can only be found "within the framework of the Annan Plan, by avoiding military intervention, and convincing Assad."
While in principal Turkish policy makers have supported the Annan Plan since its inception in early April, they have repeatedly said they are highly sceptical that it will end the violence.
Noting that over 1,500 people have been killed since the plan was supposed to go into effect, Turkey's foreign ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal told SES Türkiye "it means more than just implementing a ceasefire."
"Hereafter, all depends on the actions of Assad regime," he said.
Turkish officials are now evaluating the "Yemeni Model" as an option for the Syrian president.
Based on the Gulf Co-operation Council and UN-backed transition this year in Yemen, this model foresees Assad's departure as part of a peace accord that would give him protection from prosecution and see his inner circle assume command in the interim rule. But many questions remain whether such a formula would be accepted by Assad, or for that matter, by the divided opposition.