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Today, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was the guest of honour in Sarajevo, where he joined Bosnia’s Chief Mufti Mustafa Cerić and Bakir Izetbegović, the Bosniak member of the tripartite presidency, in the Eid al-Fitr prayer marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. It must have felt like a proper holiday for him, despite the obligatory accusations of “neo-Ottoman” ambitions coming from the Bosnian Serbs. For Turkey, Bosnia is the easy bit of its neighbourhood policy.
Things are not looking as bright on Turkey’s Middle Eastern flank. With the bloodshed in Syria continuing unabated, Turkey has discovered that its leverage over Bashar al-Assad is limited at best and close to zero at worst. Arab-speaking Davutoğlu is said to have visited Damascus over 60 times in the past eight years but is no longer a welcome guest.
Not that he has anything to do there anyway. The strategy of talking the Syrian leadership into halting the crackdown and initiating a genuine reform process has yielded no results. As recently as 10th August, Turkey’s Prime Minister, R. Tayyip Erdoğan, gave Assad a deadline of 15 days to put an end to the despicable bloodshed and embrace change. No significant move followed, apart from an initial withdrawal of tanks from the city of Hama. Meanwhile, refugees have kept arriving in Turkey, with local public opinion inflamed by Assad’s merciless violence during the holiest time of the year.
Turkey’s tone has now changed. On Sunday, speaking to the state-run Anatolia Agency, President Abdullah Gül gave public expression to Ankara’s frustration: “Clearly we have reached a point where anything would be too little too late,” he said, adding: “Today in the world there is no place for authoritarian administrations, one-party rule, closed regimes” and pointing out that such governments could be “replaced by force” if their leaders oppose change. Gül was emphatic: “Everyone should know that we are with the Syrian people.”
Erdoğan then echoed this sentiment, warning that Assad could soon share the fate of Ben Ali, Mubarak and, as of last week, Gaddafi. Certainly the AKP government is not convinced by the latest round of pseudo-reforms unveiled by Damascus, which relax the rules on media. In other words, after months of fence-sitting and ratcheting up its rhetoric, Turkey has voiced its support for the anti-Assad protestors and rebuked its former good friend in Damascus. On Monday, Istanbul saw an anti-regime rally attended by 150 Syrian dissidents who have found a safe haven across the border.
The question is what follows next. Short of a military intervention to impose a security zone across the border with Syria, Turkey has no cards left to play. And there is little evidence that it is prepared to take such a risky decision. The renewed fight against PKK insurgency in southeast provinces and Northern Iraq increases the opportunities for Syria, a patron of the Kurdish radicals in the 1990s, to retaliate. Armed intervention would no doubt strain relations with Iran which has supported, albeit with decreasing resolve, the crackdown on demonstrations by its Syrian allies. Although Turkey has now theoretically adopted a values-guided policy, realpolitik imposes some hard constraints. Still, there are influential voices arguing that being nice to Iran is not a good policy for a state seeking to be an “order setter” in its neighbourhood.
The Syrian tragedy has created an opportunity for Turkey to re-engage with the US and the EU. A realisation of the limits of unilateralism could give Ankara an incentive to re-affirm links with old allies. This is already happening on Libya, where Ankara evolved from an early opponent of military intervention, to lukewarm supporter of NATO actions, to a principal sponsor of the anti-Gaddafi National Transitional Council (NTC). Turkey has already given some US$ 100 million to the NTC. It hosted the latest meeting of the Contact Group for Libya last Thursday to discuss next steps. There can be little doubt that Turkey will be a key player, in concert with the Western powers.
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