Turkey’s Recent Positions on Syria and Libya

Friday, July 22, 2011

Elias Vahedi
Expert on Turkey and Caucasus Affairs

A new approach characterized by looking to the East and more attention to forgotten issues of the region (which signaled a change in Turkey’s foreign strategy) has been paying off in Turkey’s foreign relations with other regional states. Outbreak of uprisings in the Arab countries and Turkey’s active role in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt further promoted regional status of Turkey making it a possible role model for future political systems of those countries. Ankara’s positions on Syria and Libya, however, have cast doubts on the country’s positive role. On the one hand, politicians belonging to Justice and Development Party are now facing a reformist and protesting political current in Arab countries. On the other hand, the unrests are also sweeping through Libya and Syria whose relations with Turkey have been quite amicable and Erdogan has been trying, in line with his new policy of mending fences with regional states, to further consolidate relations with those countries.

Turkey’s Position on Syria

Faced with political protests in Syria, Turkey first announced that it is a domestic affair of the Syrian regime which enjoyed enough support from its masses. As unrests escalated in Syria and the Syrian government came under fire from not only international organizations, but also from civil institutions in Turkey, Ankara took a critical approach to Syria. That approach, however, failed to satisfy Turkish political circles, while damaging exemplary relations which existed between Ankara and Damascus. Turkey’s government first tried to advise its Syrian counterpart from the position of a powerful neighbor. However, Turkish politicians were obviously ignorant of the power structure in their southern neighbor. Although Syria has not shown a sharp reaction to Turkey and Bashar Assad has maintained political decorum, Syria has been otherwise complaining of measures taken by its neighbor. A large part of those complaints have been relayed to the Iranian officials and have relatively overshadowed Iran’s relations with Turkey. The main result of Turkey’s intermediate position has been presence of tens of thousands of Syrian citizens on its soil as refugees and anger of Assad’s government. Of course, some analysts maintain that the present Turkish policy will bear fruit in the long run. A highlight of Turkey’s approach to Syria is the priority which has been given to humanitarian vs. political considerations. The leaders of Turkey are well aware that Syrian opposition is not able to overthrow the government and establish a new political system. Therefore, Turkey cannot make a big change in Syria’s political future, at least, in short and medium terms. Turkey is just responding to expectations from inside and outside which call on the government to support human rights as well as democratic and freedom seeking movements. Arguing that adoption of outright positions and using sharp remarks will have negative consequences, the Turkish officials are looking forward to future developments. They believe that the best option for Bashar Assad is to give in to reforms demanded by the opposition because the more quickly they reach an agreement; the less will be damage to Turkey’s relations with both sides of the ongoing developments in Syria. Some analysts maintain that Turkey’s behavior attests to the fact that Ankara had not come up with clear tactics to handle the situation beforehand. Unlike Turkey, Iran’s position is totally transparent and the country is ready to pay the price for its views. Analysts maintain that Turkey’s silence toward massacre of the Syrian people by the army (whose number is higher than casualties in Gaza after an Israeli attack to which Turkey vehemently protested) has damaged and tarnished Turkey’s regional credit. As a result, neither the Syrian government, nor the opposition is satisfied with Turkey’s approach. Of course, Turkey seems to have to continue with its current policy in order to redefine its role and performance in international system.

Turkey’s Stance on Libya

Although Turkey has taken a headstrong approach to Libyan government, its foreign policy has been more successful in Libya than Syria. Arrival of Turkish forces within framework of NATO in Libya was in contrast to early opposition of Turkish politicians to sending troops. Later on, however, they agreed to send forces provided that no civilian was harmed and foreign forces left Libya immediately after the downfall of the Libyan government. In the meantime, Turkey has been the sole country which is still negotiating with both parties to the Libyan conflict. Some analysts maintain that Turkey and France (the most active European contender in Libya) constitute positive and negative poles of NATO’s intervention in Libya. Turkey’s views are different from other NATO members in that Ankara aims to keep human losses in Libya at a minimum and maintains that the country should be given over to its people instead of being occupied like Afghanistan and Iraq. This situation not only conforms to the interests of the Libyan people, but also buys Turkey much regional credibility. Western countries, however, are contemplating the same fate for Libya as the occupied Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, part of the Turkish society and the Islamic world in general is angry that Turkey has accompanied NATO in attacking Libya.

On the whole, apart from major differences in details, Turkey’s policies in Libya and Syria are based on relative impartiality in line with doctrine of strategic depth which is being followed by the Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu. His doctrine is based on establishing relations with all powerful parties in all countries (not only official diplomatic relations). This is, of course, a conservative approach which allows Turkey to meet its interest, even by suffering some losses, in case of any possible scenario.