The New Power in the Middle East: Syria's Fate Will Be Determined By Turkey

By Maximilian Popp

Europe and the United States are delaying action in the Syria conflict -- yielding the field to Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan is presenting himself as a crisis manager, organizing aid for refugees and threatening to invoke NATO's mutual defense clause. By doing so, Ankara is cementing its status as a major regional power in the Middle East.

Syrian refugees in Turkey: Ankara is now defending European values. Zoom
REUTERS

Syrian refugees in Turkey: Ankara is now defending European values.

The images emanating from the Syrian-Turkish border in recent months have been horrendous. They show thousands of Syrians fleeing dictator Bashar Assad's henchmen. Many are wounded and they speak of torture, rape and executions.

But there have also been images of humanity. Turkey has erected tent camps for Syrians seeking safety. The country has also set up emergency medical facilities to treat the wounded. And neighboring countries have provided food supplies.

"Can you still remember how the African refugees from Tunisia and Libya were treated in Italy during the Arab Spring?" asks Ertugrul Özkök, the former editor in chief of the Turkish national daily Hürriyet. Back then, human rights groups criticized the thoughtless European Union policy of sealing off the Italian island of Lampedusa like a fortress to keep the refugees from entering Europe. Now Özkök is pointing out how ironic it is that much-maligned Turkey, of all countries, is defending European values in the current crisis.

But the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also pursuing its own interests in the conflict:

  • Syria is an important trading partner.

  • Kurds live in both Turkey and Syria. The unrest poses a threat to stability in a region in which a latent danger already persists through the confrontations between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers Movement (PKK) terrorist organization.

  • Finally, the Syrian refugees create a humanitarian challenge for Turkey that the country is no longer truly capable of shouldering on its own.

Indeed, it isn't altruism alone driving Erdogan to push for Syrian dictator Assad's fall. Nor is it a result of the "solidarity with our Muslim brothers in Syria," as media aligned with the government in Ankara are fond of reporting. Still, even Erdogan's detractors have acknowledged his efforts to tackle the chaos.

But more importantly, because Europe and the United States are ducking away from the issue, the fate of the Syrian people is currently being decided in Ankara.

'Turkey Will be More Important than Britain'

In his column in Britain's Guardian newspaper this week, Oxford University historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote that "Europe has left Syria to a distinctly Ottoman fate." Ash criticized the West, arguing it should have put a stop to the murder in Syria with military intervention weeks ago. But in contrast to the Libya conflict, the political will is lacking this time. United States President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are both facing elections; and Germany, for its part, doesn't lead war deployments for a good reason.

Instead, other powers are now taking the lead in the Middle East. "In the near future, Turkey will be more important than Britain," Ash writes. "Iran than Germany, Saudi Arabia than France, Russia than America." In the Syrian conflict, one starts to see the emergence of a new world order described by US-based journalist Fareed Zakaria as the "Rise of the Rest."

It was telling that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan would choose his trip to China this week as the venue for an astounding public statement. "NATO has responsibilities to protect the Turkish border," he told reporters, threatening to invoke Article 5 of the alliance's treaty, which stipulates that an attack against one NATO member shall be considered an attack against all members. The push is an audacious one. It is true that Syria fired on a refugee camp in Turkey, killing two Syrians. But Erdogan knows that would hardly be sufficient grounds for invoking NATO's mutual defense clause, a move last taken following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Turkey Is Establishing Itself as a Global Power

Nor is that what the Turkish prime minister is seeking. Erdogan is not as naïve as some Western reporters like to believe -- even though they should know better by now, following 10 years of rule by his Muslim-conservative AKP party. His threat is well-calculated. He is signalling to those still ruling Syria that they will be held accountable by their opponents -- and he is showing the West that Turkey currently dictates the rules of play in the Middle East.

For some time politicians in Ankara have been discussing the question of how a military strike against Syria could be legitimized under international law. A scenario that would have much better prospects than having German and American NATO troops on Turkish soil appears to be a treaty between Turkey and Syria that was agreed upon at the peak of the Kurdish conflict in 1998. Under the terms of the Adana accord, Syria agreed not to undertake any action that would jeopardize the security and stability of Turkey. Turkish diplomats have repeatedly mentioned this treaty during recent days amid talk of a military deployment in Syria or a military buffer zone along the border.

Turkey, disparaged only a few years ago as the "sick man on the Bosporus," has since established itself as a global power. Erdorgan is pursuing a strategy that observers are describing as "Neo-Ottomanism," making his influence felt far beyond Turkey's own borders.

After his election victory last June, his third in a row, Erdogan announced that it wasn't just a victory for Istanbul and Ankara, but just as much so for Beirut and Damascus. In this crisis-riddled region, Erdogan, like a sultan, is increasingly setting the agenda.

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