By Aaron Stein
Syria’s brutal crackdown on dissent has had heavy consequences, and not only for the regime in Damascus. Among other things, it has halted diplomatic initiatives aimed at bringing the Middle Eastern country into the international fold.
Europe had been cultivating better ties in the hope of luring Syria away from its longstanding ally, Iran. Meanwhile, Turkey’s relationship with the Assad regime was at times nothing short of cozy.
“There are not many leaders who can say they went on holiday with Bashar,” says Hugh Pope, the Turkey/Cyprus Project Director at the International Crisis Group, referring to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The goal, he explains, was to leverage ties in order to maximize political interests.
Meanwhile, EU leaders such as Nicolas Sarkozy tried to encourage Syria to integrate economically with the West. In 2008, for example, Syria was welcomed into the Union of the Mediterranean.
“Sarkozy made it clear that Brussels wanted to co-operate with Syria,” said Rana Deep Islam, a fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. Policymakers in Brussels, he added, see Syria “as the centerpiece of the Middle East”.
But the Assad regime’s bloody-handedness in the face of the Arab Spring has shattered efforts at rapprochement. While Brussels has responded more vigorously – by imposing economic sanctions – the AKP-led government in Turkey has also spoken out, breaking its initial silence over the issue.
Once refugees began pouring across the border, Ankara sharpened its tone, calling for Assad to implement reforms, transition to a multi-party democracy and respect human rights.
“In light of the refugee crisis, it could not run from this issue anymore,” Islam explained.
However, Turkish leaders still appear unwilling to go as far as their European counterparts. “The EU is more determined to take action, especially when it comes to sanctions,” he said.
According to Pope, Turkey’s opposition to the idea stems from its first-hand experience with the sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq following the first Gulf War. The measures cost Turkey dearly in lost trade while failing to change the regime’s behavior.
“[Western leaders] can say what they want about how these sanctions are either different or are targeted, but the whole idea was tarnished years ago,” he added.
Moreover, Turkey has also refrained from calling for Assad’s resignation. According to Islam, “Turkey still prefers a situation where al-Assad stays in power, but implements reforms from the top,” whereas the EU has called for al-Assad to step aside if he doesn’t implement reforms immediately.
For now, a diverging policy towards Syria has not affected Turkey’s broader relations with the EU, including the accession process.
Islam doesn’t see “any major repercussions” for the accession talks. The process, he says, is “technically administrative—that is, separate from international influences. The EU has a legal obligation to keep up accession talks.”
Pope, on the other hand, points out that two years ago “Turkey’s rising image and profile in the Middle East made it a more attractive partner for the EU. Now being associated with the Middle East is less of an asset.”