Turkey finds its “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy severely compromised by upheaval in the Arab world. Relations with its closest friends, such as Syria, appear to be irrevocably damaged. On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu held marathon talks in Damascus, calling President Bashar Assad and his socialist-nationalist Alawi minority regime to stop bloodshed.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu are facing a complex regional and international environment. Their nine-year investment in friendship with the Assad regime is backfiring. In 2009, Turkey and Syria signed a strategic partnership agreement, conducted joint military maneuvers, and were so close that their cabinets held joint meetings. Expanding influence in what used to be the Ottoman Eastern Mediterranean province of Shams, Turkey introduced visa-free travel with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, while inundating Syria with its goods, from foodstuffs to appliances.
What a difference an Arab Spring makes. Now Turkey is flooded with more than 12,000 Syrian refugees. Hundreds of thousands may flee if the Assad crackdown escalates to a civil war.
Ankara is attempting to synchronize its foreign policy with Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, which pulled its ambassadors from Damascus. Turkey is hosting Syrian opposition conferences, while Davutoglu and Erdogan are demanding that Damascus stop the killing of civilians and saying they will watch events in Syria in the coming days. Syria, they say, should implement the reforms “in 10 to 14 days.”
Fat chance. President Assad responded to Davutoglu’s mission by saying Syria will continue “relentlessly fighting armed groups,” the regime’s term for protesters. Assad also offended Davutoglu by sending tanks to crush protesters near the Turkish border on the day of Davutoglu’s mision, while sending “only” a deputy foreign minister—not the Turkish minister’s counterpart—to greet him at the airport.
Much of this entanglement is Turkey’s own handiwork. It attempted to position itself as a new regional superpower, supported Hamas, and abandoned a strategic relationship with Israel. Erdogan played to the Arab “street,” enthusiastically calling for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. However, today, the Sunni “street,” which is 80 percent of Syria’s population, wants the secular and minority Alawi Assad gone, and so do the members of the Arab League.
Yet, if Turkey abandons the pro-Iranian Assad, which it is in the process of doing, it will face another strategic headache: a confrontation with Iran. Until now, Turkey played a sophisticated game of rapprochement with Syria’s Shi’a patron, increasing trade and lobbying for Tehran in the international arena. However, the demise of the Assad clan may open a new avenue for the Sunni Turkish Islamic AK Party, which is also close to the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition force in Syria and in Egypt.
And herein lies the rub. The Middle East region historically has five power centers: three Arab (Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad) and two non-Arab: Iran and Turkey. As one of these undergoes a meltdown (Damascus) and two others are very weak (Cairo and Baghdad), it is the remaining two non-Arab centers that are doomed by history and geography to compete.
Recently, Turkey stopped two shipments of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah of Lebanon, which were illegal under U.N. sanctions. The Iranian media are now badmouthing Turkey as a “Western agent.”
Hugs and kisses between Erdogan and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad notwithstanding, competition between Ankara and Tehran over Syria and Lebanon is on the rise.
So, let’s face it. Ankara is facing the demise of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy—with Syria, Cyprus, Armenia, Israel, and the Kurds.
It will be a rocky ride. Watch this space.
— Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at the Heritage Foundation.