Syria risks becoming “Afghanistan on the shores of the Mediterranean“, warned Turkish President Abdullah Gül candidly. The president’s remarks echo a growing Turkish realisation that militant Islamist groups, far from being the unpalatable but necessary bulwark against the al-Assad regime, risks transforming Turkey into a Mediterranean Pakistan. With such realisation comes the prospect of a new international consensus on Syria.
At the onset of the Syrian conflict, Turkey, Europe and the United States were all on the same side. They first attempted to nudge Bashar al-Assad to reform. But by the summer of 2011, the three parties concluded that this was a lost cause. The more the spiral of violence spun out of control, the more they, and the Arab Gulf countries, converged on their support for the Syrian opposition.
The parting of ways
But as the war deepened, the allies parted ways in two fundamental respects. First, Turkey increasingly converged with the Arab Gulf countries – and in particular Qatar – in backing the Brotherhood component of the Syrian opposition. Over time, Turkish intelligence also started turning a blind eye – and at times actively backing – the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra front and other militant Islamist groups.
The militant Islamist opposition was not Turkey’s partner of choice. But blinded by the perceived imperative of ousting the Syrian regime, Turkey allowed the safe passage of such groups into Syria, and facilitated their organisation and helped to arm them.
Alarm bells in the US and the European Union began ringing. Few were persuaded about the Saudi Arabia-promoted distinction between “good” and “bad” militant Islamist groups Islamist groups. Echoes of Afghanistan rang loud in their ears.
Second, Turkey became increasingly adamant about a more muscular international action in Syria. Turkey had long called for more direct military involvement in support of the Syrian opposition. It appealed for a humanitarian corridor, it supported the arming of the rebels, and it repeatedly called for a no-fly zone. When on August 21, a chemical bombardment killed hundreds in Eastern Ghouta, Turkey was quick to jump on the interventionist bandwagon.
The EU took a different line. With the sole exception of France, no member state openly backed the idea of an attack without a UN Security Council resolution. Even the UK moved to the sidelines after David Cameron’s government was embarrassingly defeated in the Commons. President Barack Obama took one step forward by calling for an attack, and two steps backward by abdicating his leadership to Congress. As it became increasingly clear that an endorsement of Congress was not forthcoming, both Europeans and Americans sighed in relief when Russia pulled a rabbit out of the hat – which President Assad readily caught – proposing a plan to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision. The plan, and its implementation to date, have shelved the prospects of an intervention. Turkey was left seething.
Turkey had hoped that following an attack, the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syria Army would gain the upper hand, both in the confrontation with the regime, and within the Syrian opposition, and only, at that point, would a political solution be pursued.
Turkey left hanging
For Turkey, an attack, albeit limited in nature, could have triggered deeper international involvement in the Syrian crisis, altering the balance of forces on the ground. It could have jolted the world into doing more than “simply watching”, as lamented by the Turkish president.
Without a reversal of the war on the ground, Turkey feared that a political solution would see the Syrian regime remain in power, allowing it to eradicate jihadist groups, and turning a blind eye to the fact that, barring a few cosmetic changes, the regime would wipe out – à la Egypt? – the Brotherhood and the democratic opposition over time. Turkey had hoped that following an attack, the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syria Army would gain the upper hand, both in the confrontation with the regime, and within the Syrian opposition, and that only, at that point, would a political solution be pursued.
Turkey’s concerns were not far-fetched. As all efforts are now turned towards Geneva II, it is increasingly clear that two developments have happened: Assad’s regime has been strengthened – through the battlefield, and diplomatically through its compliance so far with the chemical weapons plan; and, the democratic Syrian opposition is withering away, dwarfed by succeeding militant Islamist groups.
There is indeed a tangible risk that if, and when, a diplomatic solution is reached, it would end up in the de facto acceptance of the status quo, with a regime that is meaner and leaner, coupled with the continuation of low level violence for years to come. That said, it is also clear that Turkey seriously underplayed the costs of a military strike that could have provoked a broad military conflagration in which the entire region would not have been spared.
A new consensus?
Thus, the key question is; what to do in order to set in motion a political track that offers some hope for a solution that moves beyond an endorsement of the status quo, and whether the US, the EU and Turkey can work together to that effect.
The US, the EU and Turkey ought to exert their efforts in cobbling together a unified and credible Syrian opposition delegation for Geneva II. To do so, they must engage Saudi Arabia, the greatest loser from, and thus the greatest potential spoiler of, the current diplomatic track.
On the other side, Iran must be openly engaged on Syria – and beyond – in order for it to exert the necessary pressure on the Assad regime. In doing so, Iranian vital interests must be accounted for. Like all authoritarian regimes, Iran’s basic interest is survival. And in view of its isolation, maintaining Syria as an ally and a lifeline to Hizbollah is vital. The bottom line is whether Europe and the US are willing to provide Iran with the inclusion it seeks. An agreement on the nuclear file is necessary and progress on this front is encouraging. But alone, it is insufficient. Only if the EU and the US are willing to fully accept Iran’s position in the regional order can a genuine solution in Syria become a possibility.
But where does Turkey stand on all this? Only a few years ago, Ankara had stuck its neck out for Tehran, despite Iran being a traditional Turkish rival. The 2010 nuclear fuel swap deal, mediated together with Brazil, had put Ankara at loggerheads with its traditional allies in the West. Yet, Turkey steadfastly attempted mediation.
Since then, much has changed. The growing sectarianism of Iraq, and above all the Syrian civil war, have starkly brought to the fore Turkish-Iranian divisions. That said, as much as Europe and the US should do their share of soul-searching on the Iran question, Turkey should do likewise, and revive the promise it held out for the Middle East only a few years ago: That of a soft power that defied, rather than fed on the conflictual dichotomies of the region.
To do so, there is no better place to start than Tehran. In this respect, the timid signs of an opening are encouraging. In a recent meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke of the joint interests of the two countries in curbing the spiraling of a sectarian conflict in Syria and beyond, and working together to this effect.
As Turkey comes around to appreciating the grave risks of Syria’s radicalisation, not only is it edging towards a new consensus with the EU and the US, but its prospects for reasserting itself as a credible interlocutor with Tehran may brighten.
Nathalie Tocci is the Deputy Director, Istituto Affari Internazionali, Rome and editor of The International Spectator.
Follow her on Twitter: @Nathalie.Tocci