Why Turkey is tightening the pressure on al-Assad
A member of the Free Syrian Army takes position in Al-Qsair, southwest of the flashpoint city Homs, on January 27, 2012.
February 9th, 2012
12:51 PM ET

Why Turkey is tightening the pressure on al-Assad

Editor's note: Fadi Hakura is the associatefFellow and anager of the Turkey Project at the London-based think-tank Chatham House. He has written and lectured extensively on Turkey's political, economic and foreign policy and the relationship between the European Union and Turkey.

By Fadi Hakura - Special to CNN

Syria is heading to an "intolerable situation" according to Turkey's hyperactive Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose country is at the forefront of global efforts to engineer the downfall of the Bashar Al-Assad leadership.

Less than two years ago, relations were diametrically different.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan considered Assad a close friend and paraded Syria as the epitome of its much vaunted but now defunct "zero problems with the neighbors" policy to encourage rapprochement with Middle Eastern nations. Trade across their 850-kilometer border blossomed tenfold, security cooperation against the Kurdistan Workers' Party - a militant Kurdish group conducting a violent separatist campaign in Turkey - flourished and mutual visa restrictions were lifted.

Fadi Hakura

This transformation in ties should not be surprising in retrospect. For Turkey and Syria never enjoyed a strategic relationship as much as a convergence of interests triggered by the Iraq war in 2003 to stymie an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Similarly, both leaderships found common cause against Israel. Their relationship was merely tactical and psychological bereft of common values.

Then the eruption of the Arab awakening upended the stability in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and eventually Syria thereby unleashing long simmering sectarian tensions to the surface. Assad's security and intelligence forces dominated by fellow minority Alawites (a syncretic and mystical offshoot of Shia Islam) confronted a largely Sunni popular revolt.

Erdogan, a devout Sunni Muslim, did not hesitate to side with the anti-Assad masses. Gone are the days where Turkey defended Iranian nuclear endeavors and cooperated closely with it on Iraq. In its stead, Turkey patched once frosty relations with Washington jointly calling on Assad to resign, solidified the partnership with Gulf Arab countries and adopted a more muscular and robust approach towards Iran.

Washington's cooperation with regional players such as Turkey is a good example of what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton coined "smart power" in play to avoid committing scarce resources in money and soldiers as it disengages from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Turkey's anti-Assad inclination stems from its sectarian sympathies with the Syrian protesters, its desire to project Turkish influence in the Middle East and to restrain the regional ambitions of rival Iran. On the other hand, the U.S. seeks to degrade the Iranian nuclear program and to guarantee the security of Israel and the Gulf Arab states.

Despite the toughening rhetoric against Damascus, there is no hiding the fact that Turkey's choices are severely limited. Russia and China will thwart further UN initiatives, the Arab League looks exhausted and the positions of the pro-Assad and anti-Assad alliances are entrenched.

At the heart of stalemate is the future of the Assad dynasty. Turkey and its friends strongly favor regime change while Assad and his allies demand regime stability. How to square this conundrum is testing the limits of Turkish diplomacy.

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Topics: Syria • Turkey

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soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Marine5484

    The Turks today, just like the British, the French and the Germans will do whatever the right-wing thugs in Washington tell them to do. Then again, one only needs to look at the Turkish track record throughout their history which is indicative of the kind of people they are!!!

    February 9, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
    • gok

      I dont appreciate you disrespecting my ancestors.

      February 11, 2012 at 10:15 am | Reply
    • deniz boro

      World politics, econmy and finance and world players do not and should not depend on personal friendship, favour or any personal inclination. The essential obligation of any elected official of a country is towards its people. Close relationship of Turkey with her Muslim neigbours and Turki states which have been left out and exploited by and of the world society for decades is the power behind the financial success and stability Turkey has achieved even throughout financial world crises. This does not make Turkish people blind to unjust action, Non-democratic behavior. What Assad is doing is not much different than what Israel is doing to the Philistine. Trade is something else. But personally I do hate it when smb ust presumes that Turkey would be the food soldiers at a Western command. And furthermore apply all kinds of pitious pressure to obtain that result. If the west has a problem with the Muslim population it may settle it at its expense and discretion and keep Turkey out of it.

      February 11, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Reply
      • deniz boro

        This was almost 6 months ago. I suggest you to read the "Foundation" series of Isac Assimov to cover the time in between.v I find it quite similar but Allas ending up in charging against a culdesac end.

        August 22, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • deniz boro

      All Muslim living in Turkey are not Sunni as all Turks are not Muslims. This may be a concept hard to digest and even harder to word out but this is the case. Clear and sound. But yes unfortunatelly Turkey become somewhat a place of spy wars lately as if it is cold war session of the cable TV. The Turkish News are hard to follow because there are the affects and plays of so many pressure groups that its hard to follow up. And the pressure groups are diverging and uniting like ameoba. Concidering the wealth of the East that the West ever had eyes on to milk, you may understand the enthusiasm behind it. Istanbul nightlife may be the scene of the coming spy movies though. Well, thats good news for Turkish movie sector and economy. WHEN WILL THE WEST GROW OUT OF ITS MIDDLE AGE ASSUMPTIONS?

      February 11, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Reply
    • foreigner

      turks need to shut up.the problem in syria is created to weaken iran.turks need to learn from iran.puppets.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Reply
  2. rick

    ooooooooo right wing thugs oooooooooo washington.........ooooooooo bad west and bad turkey, good arab......... scary stuff!

    February 9, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Reply
    • Tahir

      why have you forgotten to write oooooooooo Iran

      February 13, 2012 at 8:04 am | Reply
      • rick

        because "marine" didnt mention iran, the reply was to him, not to the article. However, Iran doesnt get an oooooooooo in any case because Iran is legitimately scary and ooooooooo doesn't apply

        February 13, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Yes, Turkey's concern is sound. Nobody knows how the Syrian crisis come out, the more the conflict deepens. It's the fear of treading an uncharted terrain that worries the players most: Assad's regime, the Syrians – both supporters and the opposition. the Arab states, the non-Arab neighbours Turkey and Israel, and the outside world. Important issues are at stake if Assad's regime collapses and the country falls into chaos. The sectarian and ethnic fault lines converge in Syria and it would have repercussions in the wider region. Iran and Russia don't want to lose a protégé and ally there. The question is whether Lebanon's model were a good model for the post-Assad Syria.

    February 10, 2012 at 6:34 am | Reply
    • deniz boro

      hETTLİNGEN is it not clear to you as it is clear from the more eastern region of the world. Israel behavior of many years towards Phelestine has been a long standing thorn on all Muslims. Hence a group of rationalist people acted agaist USA on 11 Sept. Leave along the Word's craving of oil coming from the oil rich Arab Penunsula, this act alone lead to the Gulf War (which went in the family anyway) in the short term. USA is a clever state and was sure to solve the threat directed to it from the root up although in time. Hence the Arab Spring. However USA did not and can not find a solution to the very root. You can not make all citizens of the Arabian Penunsula Jews. Israilits do not admit new recruits. So what is the solution to the VERMIN?. USA has to find a way. I am not commenting on the given and promoted positioning of Turkey. Only I would say some people are getting impatient politically. And the oil diggers are not helping them.

      February 11, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply
      • rick

        many arabs are citizens of Israel and participate in the Israeli poltiical process. Your condemnation of israel is not well founded and is simply an attempt to deflect the well placed criticizm of the world regarding arabs killing arabs, muslims killing muslims, muslims killing christians etc. but its tired and old and in light of whats happening in syria, no longer credible or relevant.

        February 13, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • deniz boro

      thats true. transfer to another kind of society will not be smooth. It's more likely that another domineering power will be formed.

      April 13, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  4. Andrey

    I am really surprised how this article has made it here! Really a joy to see some honest and at the same time informed opinion on CNN site! Must be a mistake!

    February 10, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
  5. phukdaKurdz

    according to Turkey's hyperactive Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu ... that was already enough for me to see that this article is not objective and ill written. fire this journalist CNN. please, to keep the sincerity of articles

    February 10, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
    • gok

      Why because someone complimented a Turk? your name says it all little person.

      February 11, 2012 at 10:16 am | Reply
      • Marine5484

        Hey you gok, if the Turks are so good, then why don't they grant the Kurds in Eastern Turkey the independence they deserve? We've been subsidizing both their economy and military for decades.

        February 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
      • Andrey

        Hehehe – I like it! Dumb and dumber.

        February 11, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
      • Tahir

        Supporting a free Syria can help a full membership of EU(Angela Merkel happy all happy). Why give others freedom.

        February 13, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  6. justiceforall

    Turkey has more jailed and prosecuted journalist than all countries in the world except China. Turkey is an example of nothing good today.

    February 10, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Reply
    • Tahir

      Turkey needs a GOLD medal from EU to get full EU membership. A Gold medal from USA is always needed

      February 13, 2012 at 8:42 am | Reply
      • deniz boro

        Clearick you have given almost an accurate account. Why should Turkey be the food/foot soldiers of NATO if no other NATO country participate (they can not if they ar rock bottom, with no sources to secure a return on their expenses). Well Turkey sat through what went on in the Balkans. What the Serbians did to the Bosnians affected the Turks deeply. THAT WAS a genoside (ordered by the leading governors of the land). If we were able to wait for human right groups or NATO to take action we might as well live through Syrian internal war. But to Rick I must still say "do not underestimate the power of Israel" The rationalist beliefs of a handful of Jews fired and lead to this GAP between East and West. If you have humanitarian feelings fo the Syrians WHY DO YOU COMFORTABLY CHOSE TO NEGLECT THE PHELESTINES???

        February 14, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  7. a friend

    i think this writer doesnt know about turkey very much. and think simply.

    February 10, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Reply
    • deniz boro

      I believe and thank the editor for his sincere expression. And it is significantly helpful to learn the perspective of another person who is a party of this problem. Well Fadi, it is hard to go over preconditioned perspectives. You just can not look at the issue from a different viewpoint. I guess you have to forget all and learn it again. Your article, although very informative and perhaps true for your native country is still too far off from the facts.

      February 11, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Reply
  8. deniz boro

    anyway it is the election year for so many principle countries that it is already hard to discern who is bristling up its most colorfull feathers or who is sincere. It may always be a bluffed show off of showing muscles

    February 11, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
  9. clearick

    This analysis is very facile and misses a key point. From a human rights perspective, people are being killed by their own leaders in Syria and a country so divided and dysfunctional is easy to invade and to gain internal support from. The UN cannot do anything, since Russia will never allow a regime change, losing their military bases and munitions customer. China will do whatever Iran wants as long as it can get it's oil.

    Turkey is a member of NATO and is in perfect position to lead a multinational force to stabilize Syria. Assad will never leave and the situation won't change until he is forced to. From a geo-political standpoint Turkey becomes much stronger and more influential in the Muslim world, and Iran becomes diminished.

    The only question is if NATO will back Turkey in Syria. There is no oil there, and the nations within it have already been at war for a decade. They will be reluctant unless it can be done on the cheap. The one thing that makes the math work is that it hurts Iranian influence in Syria and Lebanon, which is very good for Israel and the possibility of peace in the region.

    February 12, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Reply
    • Tahir

      The most missing thing is that Turkey is also killing its own people who don't want to live with it.So how a country has right to talk about freedom.Turkey just want a GOLD medal from USA and EU otherwise they are not interested in any freedom.A GOLD medal from EU can help a full EU membership.

      February 13, 2012 at 8:40 am | Reply
      • deniz boro

        People in Turkey have the freedom to leave the country if they do feel they are not a citizen or do not want to be a citizen of this country. Laws of Turkey concerns all the people living in Turkey. Not any one special individual person. Turkey does not kill her people for leaving its borders. But when it comes to the issue of borders, this is the internationally recognised borders of Turkey which is the heritage of all Turks living in this land. Is this injustice?

        February 14, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  10. deniz boro

    If no one gets the "meaning" or the "sarcasim" I PASS.

    April 13, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  11. deniz boro

    Mind, Turkey's posision is still the same

    November 8, 2012 at 12:20 am | Reply
  12. Tahir

    After all they want to make Germany happy.They want full EU membership

    February 13, 2012 at 8:06 am | Reply
  13. deniz boro

    Davudoglu is a clever Turkish minister and he aims results rather than empty words. An he is capible of bringing about action by lets say... Pulling the right ropes. But even Davudoglu cannot solve this issue which actually is not the principle problem of Turkey. Being appointed one sidedly to a duty does not exactly mean the person would assume the role. The West still underminds its position and cannot keep up with the change of times and bank balances. Not to forget affiliations and resources. NATO and USA sources do need an urgent updating at least Turkey-wise

    February 14, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Reply

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