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"Syria ... is engaging in horrific, revolting attacks on its own people," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a June 11 interview. "The region, however, is trying to -- behind the scenes -- get the government to stop.... We listen very closely to what people in the neighborhood, in the region, say." By "the region," Clinton meant Turkey, the country from which the Obama administration has been taking most of its cues on Syria.
U.S. President Barack Obama seems to have decided early in his administration that Turkey would be the United States' primary gateway to the Middle East, and that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would be the leader who could help him implement his grand vision: to reduce the U.S. profile in the Middle East, engage Iran and Syria, and broker a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. The Turkish agenda, developed by Ahmet Davutoğlu, Erdoğan's foreign minister, seemed to dovetail perfectly with Obama's strategy. It was dubbed "zero problems with neighbors," and centered on Turkey's increasing its leadership role across the region, improving its relations with Iran and Syria, and mediating Arab-Israeli peace talks.
Obama also saw Erdoğan's close personal relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as an opportunity. A leaked 2009 diplomatic cable revealed that the administration believed that Erdoğan offered "the best hope of luring Syria out of Tehran's orbit." Pulling Syria away from Iran by jump-starting the Arab-Israeli peace process, the thinking went, Turkey would weaken Iran's influence in the Middle East.
Obama failed, however, to realize that Davutoğlu's "zero problems with neighbors" policy did not simply mean outreach to Iran and Syria; it was also a strategy for managing U.S. power in the region. Davutoğlu and Erdoğan's policy of non-alignment works to position Turkey as an intermediary between competing blocs -- the Iranian alliance system, which includes Syria, and the U.S.-led system, which includes Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, among others. If Turkey were to actually succeed in reducing tensions between the two, its mediation would no longer be needed. It seems clear that part of Turkey's strategy is to consciously exploit, not solve, Middle Eastern conflicts. When the Arab Spring spread to Syria this year, Erdoğan sought to position Turkey as Syria's lead handler, simultaneously playing up the policy as an assertion of independent regional leadership and presenting Ankara as the good cop to Washington's bad cop. But his efforts largely failed. Rather than reform, as Turkey wanted him to do, Assad became increasingly violent, laying bare the limits of Turkish power and the problems with Obama's dependence on it.
The United States' engagement with Turkey on the Syrian crisis started soon after the first protests. On April 26, Leon Panetta, then the director of the CIA, paid a surprise visit to Ankara. There, he met with Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey's National Intelligence Agency, and discussed what to do about Syria. Fidan had just been to Damascus and told Panetta that the uprising had reached a "critical threshold." He emphasized the need to broker an agreement between Assad and "the Sunni opposition" and explained that if Assad were to fail to "take an immediate step towards reforms, then the nation could be drawn into serious internal strife." In short, the Turks told the Americans to pursue regime-led reform. The Obama administration did so, but to no effect. The crackdown in Syria grew uglier. Even as Panetta was meeting with Fidan, the Syrian military laid siege to the town of Deraa, where the uprising began, committing atrocities beyond any the Arab Spring had yet seen.
Protests continued. By mid-May, the United States was again seriously debating whether to call on Assad to step down, and a major U.S. presidential speech on the Arab Spring was looming. Erdoğan, seeking to forestall a hardening of Obama's policy, took his position on regime-led reform public in the United States. He appeared on Bloomberg TV on May 13 and referred to the Syrian dictator as a "good friend." When asked whether Assad should step down, Erdoğan said, "It's early to make a decision today, because the final decision will be made by the people of Syria." As his speech was being finalized, President Obama made a special effort to reach out to Erdoğan, who was busy on the campaign trail and difficult to reach. At the last minute, Francis Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, arranged a dramatic meeting at a heliport in a suburb of Ankara, where he relayed Obama's concern about Assad and told Erdoğan that the two countries should synchronize their messages. Erdoğan reportedly responded by saying, "The region is already undergoing a significant transformation. We shouldn't disrupt the balance in the region any further." Following the meeting, Turkey continued to emphasize the need to give Assad more time to reform.
In his May 19 speech on the Arab Spring, Obama refrained from declaring Assad illegitimate, stating instead that "President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way." Obama, echoing a standard Turkish talking point, also called on Assad to "start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition."
This episode set a recurring pattern: Obama has edged several times toward calling on Assad to step down, only to pull back after speaking to Erdoğan. Another dramatic example of this came in July when, in an unscripted remark at a joint press conference with Catherine Ashton, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Clinton stated that "from our perspective, Assad has lost legitimacy." The next day, in a television interview, Obama walked back from Clinton's remarks. Four days later, at a joint press conference with the Turkish Foreign Minister, Clinton spoke out once again for regime-led reform.
Yet the Turkish solicitude toward Damascus bore no fruit. Assad did not reform, and the Syrian military became ever more emboldened. Throughout the summer, it brutally cracked down on protestors in Hama. When the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Bahrainis recalled their ambassadors from Damascus on August 8, pressure built for the White House to take a firmer line on Assad. Several media outlets reported that Obama planned to do just that on August 11. But again, Turkey seems to have pulled him back. On August 10, unnamed officials revealed that Obama was not ready to issue the statement, partly because he wanted a full account of Assad's talks with Davutoğlu the day before.
August 11 came and went without a statement. In its place, the White House produced a summary of Obama's August 11 phone call with Erdoğan, stating that the two leaders "agreed to closely monitor the actions that the Syrian government is taking, and to consult closely in the days ahead." For their part, Turkish officials claimed that Erdoğan had asked Obama not to call for Assad's ouster.
The total absence of reform in Damascus has revealed a contradiction in Turkey's strategy. A "zero problems with neighbors" policy is possible only if those neighbors have no problems with each other. Once the Syrian people sought to overthrow the regime, Turkey faced an uncomfortable choice: did it have zero problems with the regime or with the people? Turkey tried to hedge its bets by supporting Assad while pushing him to reform, but the Syrian dictator consistently rebuffed the effort.
Consider events in early April: Turkey allowed the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to hold a press conference in Istanbul, during which he denounced Assad. This incident gave rise to speculation that Ankara sought to push Assad to reach an accommodation with the Brotherhood. Turkey was seeking to extend its mediating role into the domestic Syrian arena, but Assad was having none of it. Days later, the Syrian ambassador to Turkey publicly criticized Erdoğan, stressing that true friendship means unconditional support, no questions asked. He continued, "For us, the Muslim Brotherhood is like the PKK is for Turkey," referring to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the illegal separatist movement that has long bedeviled Ankara. His remarks were a veiled threat; Syria had supported the PKK in the 1990s. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem repeated the threat a month later, warning Turkey against destroying the quiet that has reigned along the Turkey-Syria border for just over a decade. For good measure, Assad sent troops to conduct operations in towns near the Turkish border even as Davutoğlu held another round of talks in Damascus in early August.
Turkey's zero-problems policy is predicated on good relations with both Syria and Iran. But as the Turks reached out to the Syrian opposition they incurred the wrath of Tehran. Iran's official media accused the Turks, for instance, of complicity in a U.S. plot against Syria and claimed that Turkey was arming Syrian protestors. In a July effort to rescue the zero-problems policy, Davutoğlu headed to Tehran, reportedly to convince the Iranians to stop supporting Assad's campaign against the protesters. He was summarily rebuffed.
Since then, the tension between Ankara and Tehran has become public. An Iranian media outlet that belongs to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards threatened last month that "if the Turkish authorities insist on their current position ... the strategic logic will lead Iran to select Syria" instead of Turkey. To drive the point home, Iran has reportedly frozen its intelligence cooperation with Turkey against Kurdish militants. For its part, Syria also appears to have discontinued its cooperation with Turkey on the fight against the PKK, and has been harboring some of the Kurdish group's top leaders. These decisions were reminders to Turkey that, far from being a dominant power, it is vulnerable to pressure.
Embarrassed about Assad's persistent defiance, the Turkish foreign minister was forced to issue a statement on Monday -- "a final word to the Syrian authorities" -- in which he demanded a stop to Assad's military operations "immediately and unconditionally." If Assad failed to do that, Davutoğlu added, obliquely, "there will be nothing left to say about the steps that would be taken." The following day, a senior Turkish diplomat vaguely suggested that those measures might include moving toward a "disengagement policy," the consequences of which "will be the isolation of Assad." He added that, "economic measures will also come onto the agenda." However, in remarks after a dinner on Tuesday night, Davutoğlu reiterated Turkey's opposition to any "foreign intervention" in Syria.
The Syrian crisis has demonstrated a number of stubborn facts. Assad will not reform. He will not break with the Iranians. And, therefore, Obama has miscalculated. Turkey was never powerful enough to implement Obama's original vision. However unsuccessful Turkey's zero-problems policy has been, it was only ever intended to triangulate between Tehran and Washington. Turkey has sought regime-led reform, not because it is the most likely solution to the crisis but because Turkey needs Assad in power to preserve good relations with Tehran and maintain its role of mediator with Washington. Revolution in Syria will alienate the Iranians and allow the United States to develop its own direct relations with the Syrian people.
Turkey and the United States are now pursuing two mutually exclusive outcomes in Syria. Many in the United States believe that Syria would be a better place without Assad and that Assad has lost his legitimacy. In other words, United States policy is on the verge of calling for regime change, while Turkey continues to hold out hope for a reform program led by Assad, precisely in order to preserve its own influence as an intermediary between Iran, Syria, and Washington. As one Turkish senior official put it on Friday, Turkey is the "sole actor that can talk to Assad." This boast should give the Obama administration pause, because the Turkish goal is to preserve this status.
It is time for Obama to exercise leadership and press the United States' preferences for the region on Ankara. As Iran evidently explained to Turkey, the Turks must make a choice. The United States, for its part, does not owe Assad a soft landing. Strategically, it should favor his ouster and the breaking up of the Iranian alliance system. Morally, the United States should favor policies that might actually prevent slaughter on Syrian streets. Those who claimed that Assad is the last bulwark against chaos should realize by now that his regime is, in fact, destabilizing to the entire region. By all indications, it is time to actively back a democratic Syria, without Assad. Only a great power could do so and balance the complex agendas of the Middle East's several regional players. Turkey is not a great power. That role remains the United States' alone.