Turkey, under Erdogan and Davutoglu, has taken a much-publicized turn towards the Arab world. The common theory is that, with their EU membership bid making no progress, they’ve decided to seek influence elsewhere. Turkey has pursued a foreign policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors, and has attempted to turn into a new regional powerbroker–for instance, it defied the United States to offer Iran a compromise on their nuclear program. The maneuver has made PM Erdogan a consistently popular figure among Arab publics, and many were lauding Turkey’s newfound diplomatic independence and leadership and calling their new direction “neo-Ottomanism” (said with a straight face, since almost nobody in the Middle East looks back at the Ottoman era with pride, with the exception of a few nutty fundamentalists).
Turkish diplomats had found themselves popular in the palaces and on the streets of the Arab world. Then the Arab Spring happened, and they found themselves forced to choose between preserving their relations with the regimes and preserving their relations with the people. Bet on the wrong horse, and all that work goes down the drain. The Turks have, accordingly, been hedging, issuing condemnations of the crackdowns, but keeping them weakly worded to avoid destroying their relations with the leaders. It’s more or less the same thing the US did during the outbreak of protests against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. The US didn’t come out strongly against Mubarak until it was painfully clear that he could not last more than a few days.
Nowhere has Turkey’s Arab Spring problem been clearer than Syria. Turkey shares a long border with Syria, including sensitive Kurdish areas, and Syria’s location makes it Turkey’s gateway to the Levant. Turkey had, accordingly, cozied up with the al Assad regime, maintaining closer times than they would care to mention. Now, Bashar and his brother Maher have gone insane with bloodlust, killing hundreds of Syrians and putting Turkey in an extremely uncomfortable position. All signs indicate that the regime will survive the protests, yet the violence has moved more and more into areas close to the Turkish border. Refugees have been streaming into Turkey by the thousands, and Al Jazeera naturally showed up seeking their stories, as Syria has been very effective at keeping the media out. In a surprising move, they were forbidden from interviewing the refugees (I believe these restrictions have since been loosened). That showed just how far the Turks were willing to go to tamp down their Syria problem. Even though they are not known for their free press, they are more than savvy enough to know that restricting the Arab world’s leading liberal voice would be reminiscent of the recent actions of its falling dictators.
Turkey is turning into the United States of the Middle East. It wants to have both “soft power” (whatever that is) and influence in the Arab world, and as a result it’s losing both.
So what can Erdogan and Davutoglu do? They’ve made Turkey into a true regional power. It’s time to act like one. Turkey could expand its influence and credibility enormously if it used its military to establish a safe zone in the north of Syria, thus saving hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Syrians from their vicious leaders. It would give them even more influence on the final settlement of the Syrian uprising, and it would put serious pressure on the military regime in Syria. Syria’s military is significantly weaker than that of Turkey–they could make things interesting, but they’re too weak and too distracted to put up a serious fight at present. They’ve also run the military as a political institution for decades, rather than running it as a meritocracy. Turkey’s military has political troubles of its own, but it’s also a NATO-equipped modern military that can surely handle the Syrians’ outdated Russian gear. A little decent intelligence (which they no doubt have) and they could quickly dispose of the handful of modern items–like a stash of SS-N-26 Yakhont antiship missiles–that could be worrisome. The time for this intervention may have already passed. Turkey is missing an opportunity to show the world what it can do, and to fight for a cause that will surely boost its popularity among the Arab publics.