ANKARA - Enough calls to reason. It is
time for collective action. That was the message
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sent on
Thursday to his European Union (EU) colleagues,
whom he will be meeting later this week in
This warning is the latest in a
series of tough communications Ankara has issued
over the past four months to Syrian President
Davutoglu's call for
force rather than dialogue came a day after the
15-member United Nations Security Council
unanimously demanded that Damascus immediately
implement a peace plan formulated by UN and Arab
League special envoy Kofi Annan and
discussed with Assad
earlier this month.
between Damascus and anti-regime demonstrators in
Homs and other provincial cities began a year ago,
at least 8,000 people have died, according to UN
estimates, as protests have escalated into armed
Until October 2011, Turkish
leaders attempted to convince Assad to use
moderation. But those efforts led nowhere.
The Turkish position up to that point was
consistent with a decade-long rapprochement
between Ankara and Damascus, which followed 65
years of relations strained by a territorial
dispute over Hatay, formerly an independent French
protectorate and now part of Turkey.
2003, relations improved after the Turkish
parliament voted against American troops crossing
the country to enter Iraq from the north. At that
time, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan's Justice and Development (AK) Party held
the majority position in parliament.
2009, a series of diplomatic exchanges and
summits, culminating with reciprocal visits by
Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Damascus in May
of that year and Assad to Istanbul two months
later, sealed what appeared to be close ties.
In addition to a score of commercial
treaties, a military agreement was also signed and
a joint strategic committee established. Visas
were abolished; a telecommunications network
linking the Black Sea with the Persian Gulf
through Syria was agreed; and Turkish private
investment flowed into southwards.
result, Ankara's about-face towards the Assad
dynasty has surprised both business and political
observers. But a closer look reveals several
reasonable motives for Turkey's shift.
Turkey's new stance One
explanation is that Erdogan, a household name in
the Arab world since he harshly criticized
President Shimon Peres in 2009 for Israel's Cast
Lead Operation against Gaza and downgraded
relations with Israel after the Mavi
Marmara Free Gaza flotilla incident in May
2010, could tarnish his image by appearing to
condone Assad's bloody crackdown.
Syria has become the black sheep of the Arab
world, even for those who dispensed kisses on both
of Assad's cheeks five months ago, and Muammar
Gaddafi's fall in Libya in October also seems to
have persuaded the Turkish leadership that Assad's
end is inevitable.
Turkey is also trying
to position itself as the democratic paradigm for
Muslim statehood and society and restore its
commercial pre-eminence in North Africa. In Libya
alone, regime change has caused Turkish businesses
to lose or put on hold contracts totaling US$25
In addition, Erdogan and
Davutoglu's new tone coincides with warming
relations with the White House, following Ankara's
decision to be a loyal partner despite its earlier
objections to foreign intervention in Libya.
Turkey and the United States Turkey has become an indispensable ally for
the United States, in part because of uncertainty
over Iraq's future following the departure of US
troops in December.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta held talks in
Ankara the day after the troops' withdrawal
ceremony. A few weeks earlier, American drones
stationed in Iraq had been transferred to the US
base at Incirlik, in southern Turkey.
suppose many more Turkey-based drones will be
flying over Iraq in order to continue monitoring
things," says Soli Ozel, a professor at Kadir Has
University and expert on the Middle East.
In December, Turkish Foreign Ministry
spokesman Selcuk Unal said Washington had proposed
to Turkey to take over the influential role of
training Iraqi military personnel, after the US
"We will be considering it,"
United States Vice
President Joe Biden also held meetings with Gul
and Erdogan in December, and on March 13, Central
Intelligence Agency chief David Petraeus made a
last-minute stop in Turkey to meet the premier and
the director of the Turkish National Security
Similar activity by American
high-ranking defense and intelligence officers had
been observed last spring.
Pandora's box In addition to providing a
safe haven for some 17,000 Syrian refugees, the
Turks provide advice to the opposition Syrian
National Council as well as some training and
support to the Free Syrian Army, whose members
have taken refuge in Turkey.
political and diplomatic circles in Ankara
speculate that Erdogan's AKP is keen to see a
Sunni-led government in Damascus replace Alawite
Assad and his regime, whose security forces, in
particular, are dominated by fellow Alawis, who
belong to a sect that is an offshoot of Shi'ite
In the larger regional context,
such an outcome would align with the interests of
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both of which have called
for greater foreign intervention in Syria,
including supplying arms to the opposition. The
AKP, which is an Islamist party, may also favor
such a result, given that three of every four
Turks are Sunni Muslims.
is not Assad's fate, but the Pandora's box his
demise would open. With some 30 million ethnic
Kurds in the region, half of whom live in southern
and southeastern Turkey and the rest in Iraq, Iran
and Syria, the risk of a pan-Kurdish movement is
Kurds have not revolted against
Damascus and are autonomous in northern Iraq, but
have been politically and militarily active in
Turkey and Iran for decades.
been at war since 1984 with the Kurdish Workers'
Party (PKK), a rebel group classified as a
terrorist organization by Turkey, the United
States, the EU and Syria. The conflict has killed
some 35,000 people, most of them in the southeast.
Since November 2011, Damascus has
occasionally been accused by the Turkish media of
assisting the PKK against Turkish security forces
operating in the south. However, there is no
evidence of such assistance, and Syrian Kurds,
most of whom live near the Turko-Syrian border, do
not seem disposed to take up arms.
want an autonomous, secular state where we can
exist under democratic rules," says Ali Shemdin, a
senior official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party
of Syria, in a statement that does not sound
But in recent
weeks, Iraqi Kurds have given signals that they
would be prepared to evolve from their autonomous
status to an independent state. Dramatic events in
Syria and strengthening of Turkish determination
to annihilate the PKK could ignite cross-border
This threat may be the best
explanation for the gap between Ankara's
anti-Assad punitive rhetoric and its corresponding