Obama's Options in Damascus

Why It's Time to Rein in Syria -- and Turkey

Courtesy Reuters

"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

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