For Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, the past two weeks have been a hellish test in international diplomacy. Last weekend’s Iran talks ended in a stalemate, and yesterday, the UN observers in Syria were attacked by mobs. With little but more heated rhetoric and violence coming from all sides, it’s clear that neither crisis is likely to end soon.
The Arab Spring and the Iran crisis had all but erased any semblance of Turkey’s “No Problems” foreign policy. For many who had hoped for a glorious new age in Turkish diplomacy, it was depressing watching the government fumble its response as the flame of revolution spread across Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The spike in the conflict in Syria may have finally been the turn of events needed to catalyze a bigger response from Erdogan’s government.
Indeed, as refugees flood across the border, and Syrian forces now openly fire within Turkish territory, the stable ending that Ankara had hoped for in has all but vanished. Where previously the government had sought all efforts to mollify the regime, the sharper language that Erdogan has adopted against Assad is a sign that the Turkish government will be much more assertive to its neighbors than it has been so far.
The Iran talks in Istanbul did offer a sight of what the future in the region might offer. Where “No Problems” had been categorized by Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s mediations in a number of different conflicts, the future is perhaps one where Turkey finally drops the populist undertones that have categorized its approach. The future of Turkish diplomacy may rather be where Erdogan’s government finally acts more decisive, and exercises Turkish power to stabilize the region.
The path won’t be easy; Turkey faces a dangerous balancing act in regards to Iran and Syria. As Voice of America reported, Erdogan’s comments against Assad have chilled the Turkish-Iranian relationship, but both countries still rely heavily on each other. Iran supplies a large portion of Turkey’s natural gas, while relying on the government to pursue a politically brokered solution with Western countries.
The solution, while unconventional, may lie in Turkish leadership in several key areas. The first would be to prioritize the resolution of the heaviest violence in Syria before solving the Iran crisis. This would be done by leading the international teams to deliver aid and essential items to civilians in the country. Until now, most support has been blocked off by the regime by landmines and military personnel on the border. While Davutoglu called UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon for support several weeks ago, the details remain opaque and inevitably there will be vast disagreements over the logistics and costs from the members willing to foot the bill. The current status quo would be for Turkey is to continue to foot the $150 million and rising bill for the growing refugees camps on the borders.
The second would be to develop strategy to remove the Assad regime, while ensuring that there is some semblance of government following the fall. Last week, Erdogan’s comments in China had a double-entendre; one for the Western partners who are awaiting Turkey’s definitive action on the issue, and the second for the Assad regime, who are warily watching Ankara’s moves. As Maximillian Popp argued in De Spiegel, Erdogan is much cleverer than what many assume, and his statements will have sent a clear message to Assad. Needless to say, Erdogan’s strategy will have to involve Russia and Iran. If Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent statements in government sponsored Voice of Russia are to be taken at face value, the Russian government prefers Turkish action in Syria to that of the “Friends of Syria” group led by France. Erdogan should take that as a cue to begin the process of leading the reduction conflict resolution efforts.
While this strategy inevitably will draw critics who call the approach “neo-Ottoman,” there is little other options for the country to stabilize what is becoming a regional wildfire. For Erdogan, he has the benefit of having enough domestic support to supplement his foreign policy ambitions, something that isn’t true for the United States or much of Europe.
Until Turkish leadership is finally assumed, the world will continue to witness the victims of yet another dictator brutally exercising his power.
Follow Kedar Pavgi on Twitter @KedarPavgi