Thursday, December 1, 2011

Syria, Iraq: Turkey’s foreign policy headaches

Noticed a couple things on my recent trips to Istanbul and Ankara. The media in Turkey these days is awash with stories on Syria, predictably. Somewhat less predictable is how Turkey will respond to the turmoil across its border.

Some Syrian anti-regime demonstrations have morphed into an armed resistance, with the Telegraph reporting this week that Libya’s new leaders intended to send hundreds of fighters and weapons to anti-regime forces in Syria. Some in Libya believe that the alleged proposal was a rogue one made by the Islamist, Libyan militia commander Abdul Hakim Bel Haj. While it is unclear how many Syrian anti-regime demonstrators have turned to armed resistance and exactly which outside parties are helping which side and to what extent, developments indicate that violence and repression are set to escalate in Syria.

The consequences of such an escalation would directly affect Turkey. Syrian refugees in Turkey who are staying in camps on the border number over 7000 currently. However, if the death toll keeps rising and certain key groups in Syria turn against the regime, the ensuing hostilities may force tens, possibly hundreds of thousands more streaming across the border. Leaders of the Free Syrian Army opposition group, made up mainly of former Syrian Armed Forces members who defected, are currently based near the Syrian border in southern Turkey. The Turkish government has failed to clarify what support, if any, they are providing to this group; however, it can be argued that Turkey, de facto, is harboring a group bent on violent regime change in a neighboring country. So much for Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy.

While the Turkish government has made it clear in recent weeks that they would like to see Assad step down, and that his regime has lost legitimacy, it is unclear how Turkish foreign policy makers will proceed. Turkish officials are quick to insist that the term “regime change” is not in their diplomatic vocabulary. However, it seems as if global consensus is pushing towards building pressure on the Assad regime. On Saturday, the Arab League agreed to impose sanctions on Syria, after Assad declined to respond to an Arab League proposal (Assad had been given a deadline to respond by 11 am GMT Friday) that would have set a course for a diplomatic solution. On Wednesday, Turkey followed suit and imposed its own sanctions. Both Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan have suggested that a militarily secure buffer zone might be set up on the Syrian border if things get out of hand. It is so far unclear which side of the border this buffer zone would need to be set up on in order to achieve its intended purpose, but many have speculated that such a move could provoke the Syrian regime and its Iranian backers. Any sort of intervention or peace-keeping mission, even a NATO-backed one, would place much of the burden on Turkey. With the country's large military and shared border, Turkey would be expected to take the lead in any NATO mission, something which would put Turkey in the uncomfortable position both domestically and across the Arab world of appearing to do the bidding of the West in a confrontation in the Middle East.

Along with sanctions, Davutoğlu also announced that Syrian trade routes would be detoured through Iraq. Turkey will host U.S. Vice President Joe Biden first in Ankara and then in Istanbul. The visit is important as Biden handles the White House’s Iraq portfolio, and American troops are set to withdraw from Iraq by the end of this year. While Washington has said that the troop withdrawal will not mean a complete U.S. disengagement from Iraq, Turkey is anxiously looking to the December withdrawal date. Any power vacuum in Iraq could lead to greater Iranian influence in the country, particularly in the south and amongst the Shia population. A power vacuum could also allow the PKK, the separatist Kurdish terrorist group based in northern Iraq, to have greater freedom of mobility and operations, a direct threat to Turkey.

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