On Turkey and Syria

Following up on my recent Syria post, Helena Cobban has some insightful remarks re: Turkey's role. Before I get to it, from today's FT:

Turkey’s prime minister has urged Syria’s government to act swiftly on its reform promises, seeking to use Ankara’s influence to avert unrest on its southern border.

Reçep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Monday that he had spoken twice with Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, since protests spread across the country on Friday, and had advised him to take a “positive, reformist approach”.

“It is our heartfelt wish that there should be no painful events here as in Libya,” Mr Erdogan said, repeating calls for swift action on social and economic reform published by Turkey’s foreign ministry on Friday.

Last week’s crackdown on demonstrators in Syria is of deep concern to Turkey’s ruling Justice & Development (AK) party, which has forged close ties with Damascus in recent years, putting the relationship at the heart of its bid for regional influence.

Cobban notes:

Erdogan's role is, I think, key. Given the length of its common border with Syria, Turkey has a strong interest in preventing a number of outcomes in Syria:

    Fitna;

    * Emergence of a regime that is much more strongly Islamist than Erdogan's own AK Party;

    * An outright western or western/Israeli military intervention in the country; and

    * The west's imposition of much tighter sanctions on Syria, such as would drive the regime and many Syrian citizens toward extremism and further anti-westernism.

Erdogan is also in a unique position to be the spearhead of the "speedy reform" project in Syria, on account of the following factors:

    * The high esteem he enjoys both from Pres. Asad and those around him-- and, crucially from the great mass of the Syrian people;

    * Turkey's geographic proximity to Syria: This allows Turkey to do things (like increasing or easing pressure on trade routes or flows of Euphrates water) that can act as incentives or disincentives for the Syrian reform process. It also means that Turkey's political elite and public all widely understand that they need to deal successfully with the Syrian challenge, even if it costs them something, because the cost of failure could be huge for Turkey itself.

    * The fact that the AK Party, with its west-leaning and generally moderate form of Sunni Islam, is in a generally good position to be able to interact with emerging leaders from Syria's own long-repressed Sunni majority community. (Come to think of it, a democratizing Syria could also usefully have a "Justice and Development Party"-- AKP-- of its own, why not?)

Will Asad engage with this opportunity that western powers and Turkey appear to be offering him? I don't know, though I strongly hope that he will. 

As I said before, I don't know whether the Syrian regime is even capable of producing meaningful reform, and there are reports that even though Bashar might like to, his brother Maher and other elements of his family and the regime are against it. 

Nonetheless, this type of intervention by Turkey is precisely the type of regional balancing I would love to see more in the region — as opposed to direct European and American involvement construed within inflexible regional security frameworks such as "Sunni vs. Shia", "radical vs. moderate" or those related to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.