The Syrian Impasse – Analysis


By E. Fuat Keyman

The impasse in Turkish foreign policy over Syria threatens to turn into a crisis. The time is ripe to redesign Turkish foreign policy and set it on a multi-dimensional course.

Turkey is in a serious and highly risky foreign policy dead-end as far as the Syrian problem is concerned. The situation is rather like a swamp, sucking the country down the more it struggles against it. The Syrian deadlock is affecting our entire foreign policy. It is making its effectiveness, credibility, ability to think strategically, and capacity to make a difference or to produce a solution all atrophy. Every day that the Assad regime remains in place and the opposition forces continue to resist, Turkish foreign policy gets further into a dead end and loses its ability to maneuver. All the studies that have been made, the talks involving several parties or just two, the exchanges of telephone calls between ministers, and the meetings of international organizations are producing no results. The Syrian problem is steadily ceasing to be seen as part of the Arab Spring and on the contrary being interpreted as tension between Turkey and Syria. Syrian refugees in Turkey have passed the 100,000 figure according to official figures and are in reality close to 140,000. But the international community does not label this an international humanitarian crisis. Turkey has been unable to get such a description adopted.

Syria - Turkey Relations
Syria – Turkey Relations

There are two dimensions along which Turkey experiences the impasse in its foreign policy. First, Turkey cannot turn what it wants for Syria into reality. What is more, since it is confronted by this problem, Turkey’s area and capacity for manoeuvre have shrunk. Turkey’s ideas and wishes do not turn into reality, no matter what it does. Moreover the risk and prospect are also very high that it will not be able to make them a reality in the near future. Second, the gap between rhetoric and reality in in Turkish foreign policy is widening and may even be getting so large that it will be impossible to close it. Between 2002 and 2010 Turkish foreign policy was active and multidimensional in a way which matched the realities. Today it remains increasingly stuck at the level of rhetoric, talk, and intentions. Turkey’s Foreign Minister works very hard, expends a lot of energy but today, unlike the past, all that comes out of this is words, support, and activities which remain at the level of rhetoric. Today, unlike yesterday, Turkish foreign policy has not just lost its scope for manoeuvre: at the same time, rhetoric has supplanted realism. The Syrian deadlock is creating a deadlock for the whole of Turkish foreign policy. In order to get away from this dead end, we have to refashion our foreign policy anew on the basis of ‘capacity’, ‘strategy’, and ‘vision.’

Where was did things go wrong? What are the causes that led to the deadlock we currently face in foreign policy? How did it come about that, although Turkish foreign policy took the correct decision at the outset of the Arab Spring and aligned itself with the Arab peoples and change, with the deadlock in Syria it has now become enmeshed in a deadlock? An objective answer to these questions would provide us in Turkey with important help in getting out of this dead-end in foreign policy and in restoring vision and effectiveness to an active foreign policy. On the basis of the three elements which are required for an active foreign policy – i.e. setting, capacity, and vision—and as regional conditions and the multidimensional global crisis still continue, we may say that Turkey still needs to to continue to be active and multidimensional as well.

The expectations from Turkey both of people in this country and in the international community depend upon us having an active and multidimensional foreign policy. Turkey will continue in its position of being a key regional and global actor and of being a regional power. But how? Will it do this through wrestling with deadlocks, crises, and the risk of instability or as a constructive actor, one that knows its capabilities, possesses vision, and as a result is clearly effective? The lessons we should be extracting from the Syrian impasse—lessons which essentially are about creating capacity and vision in foreign policy—will create an opportunity to restructure Turkish foreign policy at both the regional and global levels.

Seven errors

The first is that it was not recent circumstances but the Arab Spring which brought to an end the policy of zero problems with neighbours and it did so right from the outset. The process began in Tunisia and grew clearer in Egypt, and then gave out alarm signals in Libya. Foreign policy decision takers did not recognize this fact early or correctly. ‘No problems with neighbours implied building up good economic and cultural relations with the then existing authoritarian regimes while trying to convince them to make reforms. The Arab Spring on the contrary comprised a popular struggle starting in Tunisia to oust these regimes and demanded the establishment in their place of better administrations which were just and provided good services.

Instead of following a strategy towards the Arab Spring , a policy which started in Libya and emerged fully in Syria, of involvement in support of regime change Turkey should have proceeded on the basis of an active foreign policy of making a contribution to the new regime based of democracy, the economy, and good/just governance. Second Turkey should have perceived much earlier that although the international community supported the Arab Spring, it was not going to (and perhaps could not) interfere in Syria on a multilateral basis. Currently the potential to intervene for regime change there is possessed neither by the United Nations, nor by the United States, nor by the European Union. Most probably none of them will possess it in the near future. A failure to perceive early on that the international community currently lacks the capacity to intervene is among the reasons why Turkey has been isolated in the Syrian impasse.

Third, foreign policy decision takers in Turkey misread both the ability of the Assad regime to resist and also the weakness of the opposition. So they developed an erroneous form of words and strategy based on the hypothesis that the Assad regime would soon fall. The hypothesis was wrong and turned out wrongly. Fourth, at the same time the decision-makers also failed to see that that Russia, Iran, and China would support the Assad regime on the basis of their own geopolitical interests and that, given the general weakness of the international community, they would be able to sustain this support at a powerful level. By itself Turkey has no ability to influence Russia and Iran, no matter how good its relations with them are. And at a time of extreme weakness of the international system, its capacity to do this is non-existent. The Assad regime grew stronger with the help of Russia, Iran, and China, whereas Turkish foreign policy steadily lost its ability to manoeuvre and to influence events to hasten the fall of the regime and so it entered its current impasse.

Fifth, the crisis in Syria has proved to be an arena for excessive and unnecessary competition between the parties in Turkish domestic politics and has become an area of debate. The AK Party (Justice and Development Party), the CHP (Republican Peoples Party), and MHP (Nationalist Action Party) have all acted wrongly and utilized the Syrian crisis as a way to extract domestic political advantage. The government was isolated in domestic politics over the Syrian impasse with criticism by the CHP and MHP, while these opposition parties were regularly branded as pro-Assad by the ruling party. Sixth, all sorts of other issues outside the country got into an impasse with the Syria crisis. These included the excessive policy emphasis on security adopted by the AK Party government over the Kurdish problem; the rise in the number of terrorist attacks by the PKK trying to take advantage of the Syria problem; and the way in which Turkey started to drift away from the democratic reform process and the perspective of full EU membership. Internally too, a perception emerged that Turkey was going through political and social polarisation and instability. And all this started to be exploited by the Assad regime in particular.

Seventh, Turkish foreign policy forgot the policy anchors of multilateralism and EU accession which had served it so well over the previous decade both in its policy language and field of action and approached both the Arab Spring and particularly the Syrian problem as if it had abandoned them. In their place it generated unilateralism as its mode of action and the idea of a strong and active state thinking as its slogan. This choice was a mistake and it became with ‘active but realistic’ at the level of rhetoric and the impression was given of an inward-looking foreign policy. Yesterday it had been a reality that Turkey progressing steadily to the West and the EU, while it also opened up to the East. But today we find that the AK Party has the image of wishing to act on its own and of throwing the EU into the waste paper basket. Turkey thus loses many of its positive characteristics of being a bridge, a connector, and a point of linkage.

I fear that if Turkey continues to make these mistakes, the impasse in Turkish foreign policy could become a crisis. Now is the time when Turkey should be extracting lessons from the mistakes it has recently made and basing its foreign policy on an effective, visionary policy in which it looks out on all parts of the world and can have strong relations with both the West and the East while establishing the correct strategic priorities. We need to work for a Turkey which does not exaggerate its strength and capacities and turns inwards. On the contrary we must work to ensure that the reality is that Turkey now starts to make a contribution to regional and world peace from within itself and is modest but also important and effective and that this is perceived by the rest of the world.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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