Turkey’s unquestioned strategic importance in the region - and hence its crucial friendship with the United States - may once again become a burden for Ankara, this time thwarting its aspirations of regional harmony. As Washington spars with Damascus, Ankara is likely to once again find itself stuck between its military pals in NATO and its fellow Muslim neighbours.
Foreign ministers of Turkey (L) and Syria:
rapprochement in recent years
Turkey has been actively developing its regional contacts in an effort to prioritise its position in the Arab and Muslim world.
Not long ago, Turkey was ready to fight Syria over accusations of Syrian support of the Kurdish separatist group, the PKK. And Damascus has more than once threatened military action against Turkey if its dams continued to hold up water flows down the Euphrates. But in recent years relations have grown quite amicable.
Since Syria expelled PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, Turkish-Syrian relations, particularly with the military, have grown better and better, explained Dr Ersel Aydinli a Syria expert at Bilkent University in Ankara. “Israel was almost scared,” he said.
Turkey’s defiance of US wishes in the war on Iraq also strengthened its solidarity with Syria and its Muslim neighbours. With regional relations working well, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Syria were able to meet on 4 April in Ankara to discuss building a bloc of resistance to the declaration of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq. But Bush’s speech has frozen the development of that cooperation.
“The Turkish-US marriage is in a process of repair after the fallout over Iraq,” Dr Aydinli said. “Ankara cannot create further difficulties by being too close to Damascus.” For its part, Damascus has bigger problems than the Kurds just now.
Ankara's image boosted
While Ankara is again feeling the pinch from Washington, it does not mean that Turkey would back any US aggression towards Syria.
“Syria is not alone,’ said Professor Huseyn Bagci, an expert in international relations at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. “It is an influential member of the Arab League.” To defy the Muslim world for the sake of the United States would be dangerous internationally and potentially explosive at home, he explained.
On the contrary, Turkey’s new Muslim government is making great efforts to bolster its position in the Islamic world, Bagci believes. Turkey’s almost accidental refusal to allow US troops to invade Iraq from its border ended up boosting Ankara’s standing in the Arab world.
Husni Mahali, a Turkey-based Syrian commentator for the BBC and the Islamist paper Yeni Safak, agrees. “It’s more likely that Turkey will be with Syria,” he suggests. “If the government were to go against the Syrians, there would be a big problem with the Arabs.”
Turkey's concerns: Kurdish Iraqi
fighters seeking independence
Despite Washington’s promise that there will be no Kurdish state, Ankara is not convinced. Mahali suspects Ankara’s obsession with the Kurdish threat to its territorial integrity will lead Ankara to stick close to Damascus and Tehran, even if it means defying the US.
A US attack on Iran or Syria would create a power vacuum similar to the one Iraq is experiencing now. The absence of firm leadership in Iran or Syria could give Kurdish nationalists the space to redraw regional boundaries and declare a new state.
Yet is Washington serious about military action in Syria or Iran? Most Turkish analysts think not. It is more likely, they say, that the US is hoping to capitalise on regional uncertainties following the US-led campaign in Iraq to intimidate Damascus and Tehran into cracking down on groups classified by the State Department as terrorist organisations, such as Hamas and Hizbollah. Expulsion of these groups from Syria would secure Israel’s borders and jumpstart the Arab-Israeli peace process, leaving Tel Aviv with little excuse to avoid talking with Syria about the Golan Heights.
To add to the delicate tangle of Turkey’s foreign relations, Ankara maintains a stout alliance with Israel. Since the two countries formalised their relations a decade ago, they have cooperated on security issues and some $1.2 billion of trade passed between them last year.
If Turkey were to side with Syria, it would endanger this vital partnership. But Bagci is adamant that it would never come to this. “Let me tell you something. In this country, there will never be an anti-Israeli policy,” he said. “Turkey does not have the luxury to be against Israel.
Turkey is considered by the Jewish state its most important and intimate strategic partner after the United States. In return for its friendship, Ankara has access to the powerful Jewish community in Washington, giving it an edge over the Greek and Armenian lobbies.
In America’s new world order, Turkey’s aims are clear. It wants good relations both with the US and its neighbours and to nullify any threat of an independent Kurdistan. What it has now is lukewarm relations with the US, reasonable relations with the Arab world and Israel and US assurances that a Kurdish state is out of the question.
To achieve its goals Ankara will have to remain publicly neutral, whilst in private appearing to support every side. “Turkey’s role must be low profile,” concludes Aydinli.
If US posturing on Syria should take a turn towards military action, however, neutrality in Ankara could be seen in Washington as implicit support - something that would certainly degrade already cool relations between Turkey and the world’s only superpower. But journalist Husni Mahali is confident that a diplomatic tussle over Syria would be just another bump in the road.
“A lot of people said the same thing about Turkish policy on Iraq,” said Mahali, referring to dire forecasts by local commentators that Turkey’s refusal to allow a US troop deployment from Turkey would prove disastrous for relations with the US and ultimately deal a fatal blow to an already withering economy.
“They said that we would be in trouble with the Americans, that America would be against us with the IMF,” said Mahali. “But as you can see, nothing happened. Turkey has no problem with America.”
No trouble with the Americans
Turkish silence on Syria could invite another diplomatic row with the US, but Middle East analyst Huseyn Bagci insists that Turkey’s only viable position in this case would be to “remain neutral”. “America can do whatever it wants in Syria, but not with us", he said.
Asked whether a confrontation over Syria would lead to a breakdown in relations between Turkey and the US, Bagci said he was certain it would not. “It’s none of Turkey’s business,” he said. “If you want to go to the cinema, and I don’t like the film, then you can go alone.”