How Ankara’s Sectarianism Hobbles U.S. Syria PolicyHalil Karaveli
Erdogan, right, attends the funeral of two pilots shot down by Syria in June. (Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters)
At first glance, it appears that the United States and Turkey are working hand in hand to end the Syrian civil war. On August 11, after meeting with Turkish officials, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement that the two countries’ foreign ministries were coordinating to support the Syrian opposition and bring about a democratic transition. In Ankara on August 23, U.S. and Turkish officials turned those words into action, holding their first operational planning meeting aimed at hastening the downfall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Beneath their common desire to oust Assad, however, Washington and Ankara have two distinctly different visions of a post-revolutionary Syria. The United States insists that any solution to the Syrian crisis should guarantee religious and ethnic pluralism. But Turkey, which is ruled by a Sunni government, has come to see the conflict in sectarian terms, building close ties with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood–dominated Sunni opposition, seeking to suppress the rights of Syrian Kurds, and castigating the minority Alawites -- Assad’s sect -- as enemies. That should be unsettling for the Obama administration, since it means that Turkey will not be of help in promoting a multi-ethnic, democratic government in Damascus. In fact, Turkish attitudes have already contributed to Syria’s worsening sectarian divisions.
Washington is pushing for pluralism. In Istanbul last month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon emphasized that “the Syrian opposition needs to be inclusive, needs to give a voice to all of the groups in Syria . . . and that includes Kurds.” Clinton, after meeting with her Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, stressed that a new Syrian government “will need to protect the rights of all Syrians regardless of religion, gender, or ethnicity.”