from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Turkey: Lessons From the Syrian Crisis?

September 14, 2012

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A recent story in the Washington Post suggested that the excitement in recent years about Turkish domination of the Middle East, neo-Ottomanism, and neo-imperialism is now coming to an end.

For several years, most assessments were of ever-growing Turkish power. “If Turkey plays its cards right, it could…even become the dominant power in the region,” one leading analyst said in January of this year. “The scene is set for Turkey to become a major regional power,” said another in 2010. “If Russia weakens, Turkey emerges as the dominant power in the region, including the eastern Mediterranean," concluded a 2009 analysis. Many other examples could be given.

But Turkey has proved unable to throw its weight around successfully even in neighboring Syria. Consider these excerpts from that Post article:

Turkey, a rising heavyweight in the Muslim world, has led the international campaign to oust the regime in next-door Syria. But as the fighting drags on, Turkey is complaining that the United States and others have left it abandoned on the front line of a conflict that is bleeding across its border.

[A]s opinion polls indicate declining domestic support for the government’s stance, Turkey is finding it has limited room to manage fallout that analysts say it did not anticipate when it turned against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last year.

“Ankara now realizes that it doesn’t have the power to ­rearrange — forget it in the region, but also not in Syria,” said Gokhan Bacik, director of the Middle East Strategic Research Center at Turkey’s Zirve University. “So Ankara desperately needs American support. But American support is not coming.”

When a U.S. delegation visited late last month, the Turks made the case they had made two weeks earlier to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a senior administration official said: They were overwhelmed with Syrians, and they wanted the United States and others to establish safe areas, protected by a no-fly zone, for them inside Syria.

What the Turks have found out, the hard way, is that their influence should not be exaggerated. They have failed in Syria, and appear to believe this was because they did not have U.S. support. (I agree with their critique of U.S. policy, but that is another subject.) As the White House is fond of citing Mr. Obama’s very close personal relationship with Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one has to wonder what Erdogan makes of this lack of support.

The current, difficult period of U.S.-Turkish relations began when Turkey refused its cooperation to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has been exacerbated by Turkish attitudes and actions regarding Israel. Now the Turks are re-learning that the United States is a very valuable ally to have, and this may point to opportunities for a better relationship in the future. If Turkey sees itself now not as the dominant power in its region but as a very important player, aware of its limitations and desirous of close cooperation with the United States, perhaps the close alliance of past decades-which was so valuable to the United States-can be rebuilt.

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