Testing Turkey

Why War in Syria Could Bring Ankara and Washington Closer Together

For all the talk of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors,” no amount of soft power has been able to protect the country from the protracted civil war in Syria. Now over two years old, that conflict has laid bare Ankara’s inability to match Tehran’s influence in the region -- or even to secure itself against violence as the conflict has spilled over its borders. After years of trying to go it alone in the Middle East, Turkey’s leaders and public must face the fact that their country needs the United States and NATO for security and stability.

Soft power was not supposed to work this way: When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, the conventional wisdom in Ankara was that it was time for Turkey to stop looking to Europe, which continually snubbed it, and instead focus on regaining the regional leadership role it had lost with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. That, the AKP maintained, would best be accomplished not through displays of military force, but by building up soft power. The new style would be an antidote to the traditional way of doing business in the Middle East -- officials believed the 2003 U.S. war in Iraq was a perfect example -- which had resulted in tumult.

To that end, Turkey sought stronger diplomatic ties with all its neighbors in the Middle East. High-level visits to Baghdad, Damascus, Tehran, and other regional capitals became routine. Between November 2002 and April 2009, for instance, the Turkish foreign minister made at least eight trips to Iran and Syria alone. In addition, Turkey opened scores of new embassies and consulates across the Arab world. These gave the country a visibility in the region that had been missing since the Ottoman era, after which the Turks turned to Europe and the Arabs fell under British and French rule.

In all of this, Turkey made a point of standing apart from the United States to solidify its position as a legitimate regional player. For example, in 2005, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, then Turkey’s president, visited Damascus over Washington’s explicit objections. That bid for warmer ties with Syria seemed to work. After the meeting, Turkey lifted visa restrictions for Syrians and the two countries began to hold joint cabinet meetings. The new tone gave Turkey ample influence over its smaller southern neighbor, which it hoped to peel away from Iran -- or so Turkey thought.

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