2012 has been a momentous year for Turkish foreign policy especially in terms of its relationship with its neighbors. Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s conception of “zero problems with neighbors” has been severely tested, most especially in relation to Turkey’s approach to Syria. Antagonistic relations between Ankara and Damascus have also had major negative repercussions on Turkey’s relations with Iran. On the positive side of the ledger, Turkey’s relations with the West in general and the United States in particular have improved as compared to the 2009-11 period as Turkey’s policies have coincided with those of the US and Europe vis-à-vis Syria and, therefore, indirectly vis-à-vis Iran.
In fact, Turkey has plowed ahead of its Western allies on this issue by acting as the spearhead of political and military support for opponents of the Assad regime. This has to a substantial extent allayed fears in Western capitals that the improvement of Turkey’s relations with its Muslim neighbors to the east (some of which is now in danger of being reversed) was taking place at the expense of Ankara’s traditional ties with the United States and Europe. This perception had been augmented in the West by Turkey’s deteriorating relations with Israel following the latter’s brutal invasion of Gaza in December 2008 and the subsequent killing in May 2010 of nine Turks aboard the Mavi Marmara in international waters by Israeli commandos.
Needless to say that this negative perception of Turkey was deliberately propagated by interested parties in the United States that would like to make Turkey’s relations with Israel as the yardstick to judge Ankara’s relations with Washington. Ankara’s independent stand on the latest round of sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council on Iran in 2010 further augmented these negative perceptions in Washington where the complex nature of Turkey’s relations with Iran, including its energy dependence and its geographic proximity, was either not recognized or deliberately ignored.
However, in the final analysis, Turkey’s improved relations with the West in general and Washington in particular in 2012, are unlikely to compensate for the problems that Turkey faces to its east – problems that are likely to become more acute in 2013 if Ankara does not rapidly re-evaluate its policy. With the Syrian stalemate unlikely to be broken in the immediate future and a unified opposition taking control of Damascus increasingly improbable, Turkey is likely to be involved in low-intensity warfare with the Syrian regime for a considerable period of time thus draining its resources.
However, if the Assad regime falls, Turkey will be faced with an even more frightening prospect, namely, the vivisection of Syria into several ethnic and sectarian based statelets, including a Kurdish one on Turkey’s borders. Such an outcome is also likely to include a continuing civil war of horrific proportions among sectarian and ethnic groups much like what happened in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and the fall of the Marxist regime.
There is the attendant danger that in this event the foreign backers of the Syrian opposition, especially the United States and Saudi Arabia, will pull out and leave Syria to its fate as they did with Afghanistan in the 1990s. This scenario appears very probable because these powers have their own agendas that are related more to weakening Iran than to democracy promotion in Syria and their objectives will be achieved with the fall of Assad regardless of what happens to the Syrian people. Turkey, like Pakistan in the 1990s in relation to Afghanistan, will be left to deal with the Syrian mess by itself. If anarchy and terrorism come to prevail in Syria in the wake of Assad’s fall, as they are likely to do given the sectarian divisions in the country and the role of militant jihadists in the war against the Assad regime, Turkey will not remain immune to the anarchy in its neighborhood. It likely to see terrorism and sectarianism further affect its body-politics that may even reverse some of the economic and political gains achieved by Turkey during the past decade.
This is a major reason why Ankara should seriously rethink its policy of involvement in the Syrian imbroglio for as time goes on it will become extremely difficult for Turkey to pull itself out of the Syrian quagmire. Another main reason why Ankara must re-evaluate its policy toward Syria is the negative effect its current stance has had on its relations with Iran, which is the pivotal in the Persian Gulf region just as Turkey is in the eastern Mediterranean including the Levant. Turkey’s potential conflict of interest with Iran in Iraq has already muddied the waters in terms of Ankara’s relations with Tehran. Adding Syria to this list is likely to strain the relationship beyond repair.
This may suit the interests of certain parties that would like to see conflict prevail between the two most important powers in the Middle East but it does not bode well for the future security and stability of the Middle East region that can only be guaranteed by a smooth working relationship between Ankara and Tehran. It appears from hindsight that Foreign Minister Davutoglu was fully aware of the fact that good relations with Iran formed the kingpin of his “zero problems with neighbors” policy. One hopes that he will have the political courage to return to the initial intent of this policy in 2013.
*By Mohammed Ayoob, University Distinguished Professor of International Relations, Michigan State University, and Adjunct Scholar, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. This piece was translated into Turkish and published in Analist Journal on January 2013.