Unrest in Syria Tests Turkey’s Role as Regional Power: Vali Nasr

July 13 (Bloomberg) -- Turkey was quick to cheer the Arab Spring, when hopeful protest seemed to promise a democratic Middle East in Turkey’s own image. But the momentum for reform has stalled, and if developments in Libya, Yemen and Syria are any indication, the Arab world is headed for protracted conflict and instability. That worries Turkey.

However, it is in the interest of both Turkey and the world that the government in Ankara plays an engaged and constructive role during this trying period.

It was only a decade ago that Turkey, denied immediate membership in the European Union, turned its attention to the Mideast. In an effort to increase its influence in the world, it used its image as a prospering Muslim democracy to offer the region a bridge to the West. Since 2002, Turkey has expanded economic ties from Libya to the Persian Gulf, normalized relations with Syria and mediated between warring factions to help stifle the insurgency in Iraq.

To the consternation of many in the West, it also moved closer to Iran and bickered with Israel. The U.S. was piqued last year, for instance, when officials in Ankara fanned the controversy over the Israeli military’s ill-fated attack on a Turkish ship, which intended to break Israel’s blockade in order to bring humanitarian supplies to the Gaza Strip. The U.S. government was again displeased when Turkey joined Brazil to negotiate a nuclear-fuel swap with Iran, a deal that the U.S. considered overly generous to the regime in Tehran.

A Viable Pillar

Since then, the Arab Spring has brought Turkey and America closer. The U.S. has encouraged Turkish involvement in diplomacy on crises in Bahrain, Libya and, most importantly, Syria. The U.S. has held up Turkey as a model to Arab protesters, as a success story to emulate, a Muslim country that practices capitalism and democracy. With Egypt preoccupied by the demands of rebuilding itself and U.S.-Saudi relations strained by American support for democracy in the Mideast, Turkey is the most viable pillar for U.S. foreign policy in the region.

At the same time, Turkey is made vulnerable by instability in the Mideast, especially the violence in neighboring Syria. Protests have weakened the regime of President Bashar al-Assad but are far from bending its will. The conflict is in a stalemate with no sign of ending soon.

Expected Trade Losses

Syria’s troubles have already affected the Turkish economy. Turkish officials expect trade with Syria to drop sharply this year. The cross-border commerce -- formal and informal -- benefits largely the restless Kurdish corner of the country, in southeast Turkey. A revenue decline could upset the fragile lull in hostilities there.

Turkey will have even more reason to worry if the army in Syria resorts to attacking civilians on the scale witnessed in Libya. The ensuing humanitarian crisis could send hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing into Turkey. To date, mostly Syrian Arabs have sought refuge there, but growing violence may compel many more Syrian Kurds to run. The cost would be a burden on the Turkish economy. More importantly, the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is known as the PKK and has deep ties with Syria’s Kurds, could take advantage of any chaos at the usually well-guarded border by moving into Syria and then infiltrating Turkey.

Precedents for Exploitation

Twice before, in 1988 and 1991, after hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds fled to Turkey to escape butchery at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the PKK used the ensuing disorder to escalate attacks on Turkey. Fearing a repeat, the government in Ankara has warned officials in Damascus that it won’t tolerate a mass inrush of Kurds. If the Syrian army creates a Kurdish-refugee crisis, Turkey has said it would establish a safe zone for refugees inside Syria. That may explain why the Syrian army has so far stayed away from Kurdish towns and villages.

The Kurdish issue is a Gordian knot for Turkey -- the last big hurdle facing Turkish democracy. The government has promised to address Kurdish grievances as part of its proposed constitutional reforms. That would be a difficult undertaking at the best of times and almost impossible should more violence or the unraveling of the Assad regime precipitate a Kurdish crisis in Syria.

Possible Civil War

The unrest in Syria is only likely to grow. If protests escalate and the Assad regime responds with increasing violence, Syrian state institutions may collapse. The situation might devolve into a civil war between Sunni Muslims, who are a majority in Syria, and minority Alawites, who control the regime. The Turkish government is hoping that officials in Damascus will avert this outcome by accommodating the protesters through reforms, but so far Turkey’s ability to affect Syria’s byzantine politics has been limited. Still, the dialogue between the two countries is an asset to the international community that the Turks should continue to use in order to press for reform in Syria.

Equally important, before Syrian unrest leads to a Kurdish-refugee crisis, the government in Ankara should take meaningful steps to resolve its own festering Kurdish issue. Many Turks are hesitant to make the concessions necessary to mollify the country’s Kurds, for instance direct talks with the PKK and an amnesty for its fighters, including those in custody. But given the Syrian crisis, Turkey can’t afford complacency. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should take advantage of the impressive mandate he won at the polls on June 12 to tackle this difficult matter. Doing so would strengthen Turkish democracy and protect Turkey from any fallout from next door.

Coordination Needed

The U.S., too, has high stakes in Syria, given the ramifications of developments there on neighboring Israel and Jordan, both important U.S. allies. Yet the government in Washington has little leverage to influence events in Syria. American foreign policy will be more effective if the U.S. closely coordinates with Turkey on its reaction to Syrian developments. The U.S. is also invested in Turkey’s stability and success. Accordingly, officials in Washington should encourage Erdogan to take the tough decisions necessary to resolve Turkey’s longstanding Kurdish problem, and if he does, support him strongly.

Turkey is a rising regional power. How great a power will be determined by how it responds to the challenges of the newly unstable Middle East.

(Vali Nasr, an international politics professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School and the author of “Forces of Fortune: The Rise of a New Muslim Middle Class and What It Means for Our World,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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