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.”   

It is unclear, however, whether Ankara is on board. As it lends critical support to the Sunni rebellion, Turkey has not made an attempt to reach out to the other ethnic and sectarian communities in the country. Instead, Turkey has framed the Syrian conflict in alienating religious terms. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), a Sunni conservative bloc, singles out Syria’s Alawites as villains, regularly denouncing their “minority regime.” Hüseyin Çelik, an AKP spokesperson, claimed at a press conference on September 8, 2011, that “the Baath regime relies on a mass of 15 percent” -- the percentage of Alawites in the country. Such a narrative overlooks the fact that the Baath regime has long owed its survival to the support of a significant portion of the majority Sunnis. 

The AKP has antagonized not only Syria’s Alawites but also its Kurds. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted that his country would resist any Kurdish push for autonomy in parts of northeastern Syria, going so far as to threaten military intervention. The Turkish government’s unreserved support for the Sunni opposition is due not only to an ideological affinity with it but also to the fact that the Sunni rebels oppose the aspirations of the Syrian Kurds.

Meanwhile, the AKP has sought to sell its anti-Assad policy to the Turkish public by fanning the flames of sectarianism at home. The AKP has directed increasingly aggressive rhetoric toward Turkey’s largest religious minority, the Alevis, and accused them of supporting the Alawites out of religious solidarity. The Alevis, a Turkish- and Kurdish-speaking heterodox Muslim minority that comprises approximately one-fifth of Turkey’s population, constitute a separate group from the Arab Alawites. But both creeds share the fate of being treated as heretics by the Sunnis.

At the September 2011 press conference, Çelik insinuated that Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, an Alevi Kurd who leads Turkey’s social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP), based his opposition to Turkey’s entanglement in the Syrian civil war on sectarian motives. “Why are you defending the Baath regime?” he inquired. “Bad things come to my mind. Is it perhaps because of sectarian solidarity?” In a similar vein, Erdogan claimed in March that Kiliçdaroğlu’s motives for supposedly befriending the Syrian president were religious, stating, “Don’t forget that a person’s religion is the religion of his friend.”

On the face of it, the Obama administration’s positions on Syria are consistent with those of Turkey. In their meetings in Turkey, Clinton reiterated that Washington “share[s] Turkey’s determination that Syria must not become a haven for [Kurdish] terrorists,” and Gordon underlined that the United States has “been clear both with the Kurds of Syria and our counterparts in Turkey that we don’t support any movement towards autonomy or separatism which we think would be a slippery slope.” Such statements may comfort the Turkish government, but the preferred U.S. outcome of a Syria where all ethnic and religious communities enjoy equal rights would nonetheless require accommodating the aspirations of the Kurds to be recognized as a distinct group. And that is precisely what Turkey deems unacceptable. Consider the fact that Turkey has persecuted its own Kurdish movement for raising the same demand; in the last three years, Ankara has arrested 8,000 Kurdish politicians and activists to keep the nationalist movement in check.

None of this is to suggest that the United States should not work with Turkey, especially since Saudi Arabia, the other main participant in the effort to bring down Assad, has even less of an interest in promoting democracy. But to have a reliable partner in the Syria crisis, Washington will have to pressure Ankara to rise above its ethnic and sectarian considerations.

The United States should therefore confront these differences in approach head-on and encourage Turkey to see the benefits of pursuing a more pluralistic policy. Despite its fear of Kurdish agitation at home, Turkey would stand to gain from establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with the Kurds in Syria, like the one that it has come to enjoy with the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq. Indeed, representatives of the leading Syrian Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have urged Ankara to forge a similar partnership. In an interview with the International Middle East Peace Research Center, Salih Muhammad Muslim, the leader of the PYD, said that Turkey should get over its “Kurdish phobia.” Erdogan’s government seems reluctant to do so, fearing that by reaching out to Syria’s Kurds and other minorities, and accepting the idea of a pluralistic Syria, Turkey would encourage its own ethnic and religious minorities to seek constitutional reform and equality. But if Turkey allows ethnic and sectarian divisions in Syria to further spiral out of control, those divisions may spill over its own borders.

By now, it should have dawned on Ankara that shouldering the Sunni cause to project power in its neighborhood courts all kinds of dangers. Framing Turkey’s involvement in Syria in religious terms leads Sunni Turks to imagine that they are waging a battle for the emancipation of faithful Muslims from the oppression of supposed heretics. This fanning of sectarian prejudice against Syria’s Alawites naturally engenders hostility toward religious minority groups in Turkey, leading the country’s already fragile social fabric to fray.

There is a bigger risk here, too. The AKP’s pro-Sunni agenda in Syria threatens to embroil Turkey in the wider Sunni-Shiite conflict across the Middle East. By taking on Iran’s ally, Turkey has exposed itself to aggression from the Islamic Republic. In a statement last month, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s chief of staff, General Hasan Firouzabadi, warned that Turkey, along with the other countries combating Assad, can expect internal turmoil as a result of their interference. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish rebel group considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States, stepped up its attacks over the summer, notably staging a major offensive in Turkey’s Hakkari Province, which borders Iran and Iraq. Iran denies any responsibility for the PKK attacks, but Turkish officials assume that Tehran is involved and that PKK militants cross into Turkey from Iran.

Until now, the Sunni bent of Turkish foreign policy has suited the geopolitical aims of the United States, as it has meant that Turkey, abandoning its previous ambition to have “zero problems” with its neighbors, has joined the camp against Iran. That advantage quelled whatever misgivings U.S. officials may have harbored about Turkey’s sectarian drift. But if the United States achieves, with Turkish help, its strategic objective of ousting Assad, it will need a different kind of Turkey as its partner for what comes after.

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  • HALIL KARAVELI is Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
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