BACKGROUND: After the Turkish border town of Akçakale was hit on October 3 by a mortar shell fired from the Syrian side of the border, killing five civilians, a resolution authorizing military actions was passed in the Turkish parliament, and the Turkish military began to routinely fire back on Syria. Turkish troops have since continued to mass on the border, and the border area has become a de facto war zone. The tensions between Turkey and Syria escalated further when Turkey intercepted civilian aircraft from Russia and Armenia bound for Syria.
Yet just as Turkey and Syria seemed to be headed toward an open confrontation, raising the specter of a full-blown war, Turkey took the unprecedented initiative to introduce diplomacy into the game. Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan took the opportunity offered by the summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) in Baku, Azerbaijan, to present a proposal to defuse the crisis through diplomatic mediation. Ultimately, what Erdoğan proposes is to revive the recent, failed attempt in Cairo, where Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were supposed to have met with the aim of agreeing on a negotiated path out of the crisis. The Cairo gathering was a failure because Saudi Arabia did not attend; Riyadh’s abstention reflected the Saudi government’s refusal to sit down at the same negotiating table with its regional rival Iran. What Erdoğan is now attempting is to reopen a process that was blocked by the refusal of the Saudis to share the negotiating table with the Iranians. This is an opposition that Turkey now proposes to bypass, by introducing a negotiating mechanism that is explicitly designed to hinder the Saudi-Iranian conflict from remaining an obstacle to diplomacy.
Erdoğan stated that “We have suggested a tripartite system. Turkey-Egypt-Iran could constitute it. A second system could then be composed of Turkey-Russia-Iran. A third system can be Turkey-Egypt-Saudi Arabia. After the results obtained from these gatherings have been evaluated, the system could be further enlarged.”
According to the Turkish plan, the results of the first tripartite meeting, between Turkey, Iran and Egypt, are subsequently going to be processed in a following meeting between Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The results produced in these separate tripartite dialogues would then in turn be addressed in an enlarged dialogue, in which Russia, the United States and perhaps also the European Union would participate.
IMPLICATIONS: The mere fact that Prime Minister Erdoğan has taken the initiative to introduce diplomacy, signaling that Ankara would look favorably on a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis, is a watershed moment. By contrast, when former UN secretary general and Syria mediator Kofi Annan in April 2012 proposed a path that would have similarly opened for a diplomatic solution, Turkey had notably withheld its support. The plan laid out by Erdoğan is an important step insofar as it reflects a new, hitherto lacking Turkish willingness to consider other options than military ones to end the protracted conflict in Syria. The Turkish proposal is a clear indication that Ankara is increasingly in search of a way out of the present stalemate. Indeed, after nineteen months of civil war in Syria, there is a growing realization among the countries of the region that military means are not going to produce an end the conflict, that they only risk igniting a devastating regional conflagration.
Internal, regional and finally international developments – or lack thereof – account for Turkey’s spectacular turnabout. Opinion polls show that the Turkish government has failed to persuade its own public about the wisdom of its Syrian policy. A substantial majority of the Turkish people is opposed to the endeavor of the government to bring about regime change in Syria, and it does not want any Turkish military intervention in Syria, irrespective of whether such an intervention is unilateral or undertaken together with Turkey’s NATO allies.
The Turkish government has also failed to mobilize any kind of support among its allies for an intervention in Syria. Turkey’s Syrian regime change policy was in fact always predicated on the assumption that its NATO allies would eventually join Turkey in an intervention. Speaking to Turkish journalists on October 16, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone made clear that the United States expects Turkey to hold its fire; the American ambassador stated that a diplomatic path must be pursued, and said that he didn’t expect Turkey and Syria to go to war. Ricciardone also reminded that the U.S. administration is concerned by the role played by radical elements within the Syrian opposition, and said that it is very difficult to establish the kind of no-fly zone in Syria that Turkey has been demanding absent a decision in the UN, which in turn of course remain out of the question given the opposition of Russia and China.
While the Turkish government has not been able to mobilize its own opinion, let alone an international opinion in favor of military intervention in Syria, so it has been unsuccessful in undermining the popular support that the regime in Damascus continues to enjoy; indeed, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has to a certain extent succeeded in consolidating its position. What is particularly noteworthy is the fact that urban Sunni middle class has so far not withdrawn its support for the Baath regime. That in turn reflects the worries that the fall of al-Assad would usher in a state of anarchy, and that Islamist militias would become empowered.
The Turkish return to diplomacy also reflects Turkey’s wariness that it has become vulnerable to the counter-measures of the Shiite axis, Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus, that it has challenged over Syria. The Iranian leadership has in unequivocal terms stated that it is prepared to reply militarily to any attempt to change the regime in Syria by military intervention. The realization that such an attempt would invariably suck Turkey into a war with the Shiite powers has finally come to sink in among the policymakers in Ankara.
CONCLUSIONS: In a sense, it was to be expected that Turkey would make an attempt to explore a diplomatic path out of the Syrian stalemate; confronted with internal, regional and international constraints, Turkey lacks the capacity to finish off what it has started in Syria. It cannot change the regime in Damascus and bring about an end to the Syrian civil war with military means. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu recently flouted the idea – immediately rejected by the rebels – that a transitional government under the leadership of Syrian vice president Farouk al-Shara, who is in fact arguably more of a die-hard Baathist than President Bashar al-Assad, would be acceptable for Turkey; that served to illustrated how much Ankara’s ambitions have shrunk in the face of obstacles that have proven to be insurmountable.
However, the question nonetheless remains to what extent Turkey’s reversion to diplomacy reflects a deeper reassessment of its Syrian policy; while representing a step back from the military solution that had so far been privileged by Ankara, it could also be interpreted as a temporary, tactical move.
The challenge that Ankara faces is above all to execute its reversal of policy in such a way that it does not inflict serious harm on Turkey’s prestige and without undermining its aspirations to be the power that– in the word of foreign minister Davutoğlu – designs the Middle East. If the reversal of its Syrian policy impacts negatively on Turkey’s prestige, and on its perception in the region, making it seem as a lesser power, then Ankara might decide not to pursue its diplomatic efforts further.
Dr. Veysel Ayhan is President of the International Middle East Peace Research Center (IMPR). He is also associate professor at the Abant Izzet Baysal University, Turkey.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".