A problem on Turkey's door that only Ankara can solve
It's been easy for Washington hawks to mock Turkey's "zero problems with neighbours" policy in light of events in Syria.
Those doing the mocking, of course, detested the policy long before the Assad regime began butchering protestors on its streets, for the simple reason that under its rubric the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has moved Turkey out of the orbit of US policy in the wider Middle East, breaking with Washington on Iraq, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
So, the spectacle of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad blatantly ignoring the entreaties of Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to end war against protesting citizens has been seized upon by some as proof of the error of Turkey's ways.
Mr Al Assad appeared to be demonstrating his contempt for his neighbour when, after a six-hour meeting with Mr Davutoglu last week, his forces escalated their offensive, even using navy gunships to shell the coastal city of Latakia - and in the process forcing the long-suffering residents of its Palestinian refugee camp to flee for their lives.
There was something almost humiliating in Mr Davutoglu's remarks the following day, issuing a "final warning" to Syria to "immediately and unconditionally" halt its crackdown, or else face unspecified "further steps" by Ankara.
When Mr Al Assad ignores the interests of its neighbour and key trade partner and wages a war that has sent 10,000 refugees across their common border, and raises the spectre of Western military intervention and Iraq-style sectarian warfare on Turkey's doorstep, it's pretty clear that like it or not, Turkey has a problem with a neighbour.
But "zero problems with neighbours" is a slogan ill-suited to describe a policy that, if anything, is actually vindicated by the conundrum facing all outside powers over how to respond to the Syria crisis.
It's no coincidence that Ankara is being called upon by the US and Saudi Arabia to take the lead in finding a political solution to the crisis: Turkey may have more leverage with Damascus than any other player except Iran, and the Iranians are annoyed at Turkey's interventions - precisely because Tehran sees the Syrian crisis as simply another theatre of its cold war with Saudi Arabia and the US.
"Zero problems" has been a Turkish attempt to break with that binary cold war mentality, common to both Washington and Tehran, which divides the region in a zero-sum conflict between "moderates" aligned with US goals and "radicals" aligned with Iran.
Instead, Turkey has adopted an independent foreign policy aimed at enhancing its growing regional power status (it has Nato's second biggest army, and one of the world's fastest-growing economies, as well as offering a model for integrating Islamist politics into a democratic framework) to resolve or manage conflicts through dialogue aimed at integrating key stakeholders into common frameworks for stability despite their differences. Turkey's willingness to break from a failed and increasingly dangerous US strategy of confronting Iran over its nuclear development doesn't mean Turkey has "gone over" to Iran's camp; it has simply tried to achieve a political solution through compromise where the American approach of confrontation has palpably failed.
Similarly, its willingness to stand up for the people of Gaza in the face of military and economic collective punishment from Israel doesn't automatically put it in the camp of Hamas; it simply makes clear that Turkey believes that the US-Israeli strategy of trying to eliminate Hamas will fail at an intolerable cost.
Approaching Syria through the prism of a regional battle for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be helpful. And given the sectarian dimension of that contest, it could even be dangerous, not only for Syria, but also for neighbouring Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. So, too, is dealing with Syria on the basis of US regional priorities such as promoting Israel's interests and isolating Iran.
America's experience in Iraq and Afghanistan should have shown Washington the logic in Turkey's approach. Extricating the US from Afghanistan without the country imploding can't be done without achieving some sort of consensus with regional stakeholders Pakistan, India, Iran and Russia.
Iraq presents a similar challenge: Absent some degree of Saudi-Iranian consensus - or at least an undertaking to refrain from using Iraq as a proxy battleground - the risk of renewed civil war once the US departs remains high.
Libya was a reminder that Turkey stands committed to Arab democracy, and was willing to support the opposition and the principle that the Libyan people should decide their future at the ballot box. Sure, Col Muammar Qaddafi's defiance has until now precluded a political solution for ending the war, but Nato powers have already embraced Turkey's approach for the aftermath, insisting that the rebel leadership include substantial elements of the old regime and its security forces in any new order to give them a stake in its survival.
The challenges for Turkey thrown up by Mr Al Assad's cold-blooded power game are immense, and the regime's actions are dimming prospects for its long-term survival. Turkey is engaged with both the opposition and the regime, but there's little flexibility on Mr Al Assad's side.
Still, the conflict in Syria carries massive regional implications and stakes - it has fallen to Turkey to chart a path that both averts foreign military intervention and ends the bloodshed unleashed by the Assad regime.
Consider the test a coming-of-age moment for Turkey's new foreign policy. Even then, it may still be the region's best hope for avoiding, or sometimes simply minimising, the catastrophic consequences of the brutal arrogance of the Assads as well as the Qaddafis.
Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @tonykaron
Published: August 17, 2011 04:00 AM