The hasty policy of Turkey toward the last year’s uprising in Syria has been a failure in Turkey’s foreign policy. Although many consider Iran the biggest loser of the current situation in Syria, it is not known who the winner is; is it possible to consider Turkey the winner by Istanbul becoming a base for the Syrian opposition? By Assad’s fall is Turkey going to be the hero of the Syrian people? In order to assess Turkey’s policies in the current uprising in Syria, we need to investigate Turkey’s costs and benefits in some possible scenarios now and in the near future.
The vast Turkish investment in Libya during Gadhafi caused a more vigilant policy toward the actual civil war in Libya on the part of Turkey’s government. Until the very end, Turkey was against any foreign military intervention in Libya. However much Turkey was vigilant in deciding its policy toward Libya, it was hasty in its policy toward the Syrian uprisings. As earyly as the beginning of the uprising in Syria, Turkey reacted quickly and put Assad’s regime under pressure to start reform or even step down; soon Istanbul became a base for the opposition, and it came at the cost of losing Assad’s trust in Turkey; instead of staying to be a mediator, Turkey soon became a party in the confrontation. Contrary to Turkey’s expectations, tensions continued in Syria and now have led to a civil war without any solution at hand.
We can assess Turkey’s failure or success in terms of two factors: economically and politically in possible scenarios for the future of Syria. The first scenario is the current situation, tensions or probably a civil war; in the current situation which has been continuing, Turkey has lost the Syrian market in which it was unrivalled. In my three-month stay in Damascus in 2009, the presence of Turkish goods everywhere in Damascus’ market was visible; the two countries had signed a free trade agreement that was mostly to the benefit of Turkey. According to Turkey’s Ministry of Trade, Turkey’s trade with Syria was worth $2.5 billion in 2010; around 1 million Syrian tourists also entered Turkey in the same year; this number has seriously dropped since the beginning of the tensions in Syria. In consequence of the continuation of the current situation, Turkish merchants and producers will be the losers, losing an unchallenged market for an unknown period of time. In fact, Assad’s isolated regime had allowed for Turkey to be unrivalled in Syria’s market; a more democratic government after Assad’s fall can change the situation for Turkey by bringing more countries to do business in Syria.
Moreover, instead of trading and tourism, Turkey’s borders with Syria are flooded by people who have fled Assad’s violence to take refuge in Turkey; unfortunately, there is no prospect of peace in Syria but rather more violence; and Turkey should expect many more refugees fleeing the arising violence done by both sides. This is going to be a security issue as well as an economic burden on Turkey.
Right now, the best possible case for Turkey is the fall of Assad’s regime. If we imagine that right now Assad has fallen, certainly it does not mean an end to tensions in Syria. But more important is Syria’s economy after a long time of civil war. An economically weak country even before the civil war, Syria is going to be a bankrupt and destroyed state by end of the war. In contrast to Libya, Syria does not enjoy big energy or mineral resources; there will be no available resources for reconstructing Syria that Turkey can take over after war. Moreover, the country will be too poor to be able to become a market for Turkish goods like it was before. It is apparent that Turkey is a loser, economically speaking.
What will be Turkey’s political achievements through siding with the opposition? Until the beginning of the uprising, the Turkish-Syrian relationship in Assad’s time was at its highest level. Even Iran, Syria’s most strategic ally, was happy with that growing tie with Turkey, considering it critical to Syrian stability. Assad’s fall will be followed by Iran’s disappearance from the Syrian political scene, at least in the short term, and the rise of the Saudis and probably some of the Western countries. The form of Syrian government after Assad is not known, nor the type of relations that will develop with Turkey; in a best case scenario political ties with the future government in Syria will be like they were in Assad’s time. Also, a democratic government in Syria will cost Turkey its importance as the only functioning Muslim democracy in the region and the neighbor of a country that is part of the “Axis of Evil” according to the West. Hence, there will be no more need for Turkey to be a mediator in regional conflicts.
The most important political challenge, however, is the Syrian Kurdish minority bordering with Turkey. After a Kurdish empowering in Iraq, freedom of Syrian Kurds from Assad’s regime and probably the formation of an autonomous/independent Kurdish province bordering with a country that is already struggling with its own big Kurdish minority population does not seem to be in the security interest of Turkey. It is hard to believe that Kurds in Syria will come to an agreement with the future government in Syria. This is a security matter for Turkey, as the country with the biggest Kurdish population in the region.
An important issue that has attracted less attention is the Saudis’ investment in Syria. It is very easy to imagine that Islamists will have upper hand in Syrian politics after Assad. Many of these Islamists will owe a lot to the Saudis because of financial and logistical help during the war, in addition to the dollars the country will need for reconstruction after the war. It is certain that the Saudis’ money will mainly go to the fundamentalist groups, helping them become more powerful and disciplined than others. A Muslim country like Turkey will have a great potential for the growth of this type of Islam. Turkey is already suffering from the threat of fundamentalism; having a neighboring country in which this type of Islam is growing fast, fueled by Saudi money, will be a significant security danger for Turkey. Of course, we should mention that this outcome will be consequential for the US and Israel too.
Considering all these points, it seems that Turkey’s policy toward the uprising in Syria was hasty and not thought through. It would have been far closer to prudence if Turkey had not taken anyone’s side so early on and reserved its position as a neutral party to mediate between parties to the confrontation. Assad’s trust along with the opposition’s would have been helpful in potentially solving the crisis more peacefully. I believe that Turkey expected Syria to be like other Arab uprisings, ending more or less quickly; Turkey, to boost its growing influence in the Arab world, along with the Qataris’ and Saudis’ appetite for Assad’s fall, accelerated its decision-making.