Syria Musings Pt 2: Turkey — The Forgotten Ally

So President Obama made a big announcement today. I think it’s a very positive development. It’s also not what I’m going to be talking about in pt 2 of my musings. Instead I’d like to turn our attention to a lynchpin of US foreign policy in the Middle East. No, I’m not talking about Israel, or Egypt, or Iraq. The state I’d like to focus on today is Turkey.

Since the late 1940s, Turkey has been a pillar of US grand strategy in the Middle East, serving as a key ally in the Cold War and despite some cooling in relations since the rise of Erdogan’s AKP and the Iraq War, Turkey remains an important element of US foreign policy. This is particularly true given the current Administration’s efforts to draw a smaller US footprint in the region. US-Turkish relations has become an important element in the “more off-shore” presence in the Middle East, serving as a focal point for US diplomatic efforts and providing a strategic locus from which the US can channel its efforts.

While most of the commentary involves the importance of western European US allies (UK and France), along with potential great power competitors in the BRICS (especially the R and the C) the closest US ally with a direct stake in the matter is Turkey.

Since the start of the civil war in Syria, there have been sporadic border clashes between the two Levantine states. Moreover, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Prime Minister, has been one of the loudest Muslim head of government to call for intervention in the deepening humanitarian crisis in Syria.

On the other hand, Erdogan faces substantial domestic pressure to prevent the escalation of conflict, and Turkey faces regional rivals who would be more than happy to help take them down a peg in the event of a larger conflict. Despite its status as the most economically robust states in the region, Turkey still has a large amount of sectarian conflict along its border regions, including problems with Kurdish separatists. To say that these cleavages provide an opportunity for a third party to inflame using arms shipments and tacit backing goes without saying.

More than any other leader in the region, Erdogan faces a delicate balance in Syria. On one hand, his government must remain sympathetic to the lives of Syrian civilians, and be prepared to deal with the fallout from a flood of refugees across border. This recognition also must be balanced by the potential for any fallout in Syria to heavily impact their shared border. At the same time, Turkey has a vested interest in trying to improve its own strategic situation within the region. Dislodging Iran’s influence in Syria would be well within Ankara’s interest, as would getting their own favored parties into position in Damascus.

The ambivalent US position on Syria might also show an attempt to provide Erdogan with an out. By bringing a larger international debate on the prospects of intervention, Turkey can appear to have been leading the efforts for humanitarian intervention without needing to be the one to commit substantial resources to the cause. In the event of the failure of an international response, the Turkish government has the ability to stay its hand but return to an aggressive posture in word if not action.

Either way, for US-Turkish relations, ignoring the Syria problem won’t be an option. Retaining cordial relations with the Turks is one of the keys of any ability for the US to pivot toward Asia. The question of just precisely what Turkey wants the end-game in Syria to be, however, remains an open question.

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2 thoughts on “Syria Musings Pt 2: Turkey — The Forgotten Ally

  1. “Retaining cordial relations with the Turks is one of the keys of any ability for the US to pivot toward Asia. ”

    If the US-Turkey relationship survived the actions on Cyprus and Iraq, it will survive inaction on Syria.

    Incirlik is important, but the Gulf state bases are more important. (because the center of gravity is closer to Persia). Imo, Turkey was always about the northern arc towards the Black Sea and Caucasus – and back to Greece. (and, to be sure, defending the lines of approach that the USSR had into the Middle East – but that threat axis really isn’t there anymore).

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    • Turkey’s always been more about holing up the Russians, but I think their importance in the Levant is something that’s only going to increase. They are by far the most economically dynamic state in the region, and they provide a regional hub from which the US can off-shore balance into Central Asia if necessary. As far as potential states that the US has best relationships with and is closely associated with the region, I think Turkey’s the only real long-term partner the US has there. (Let’s admit that Georgia and the Ukraine are unlikely to be able to be fully free of Russian influence and Bulgaria and Greece are simply not economically viable as a regional lynchpin)

      I don’t think that inaction in Syria will hurt the Turkish-American relationship that much, but I do think that the US national interest is focused mostly on how the Turks will react as much as how the Gulf States or Iran/Russia are looking at it. That is to say, I think the presence of Turkey is at least not well covered in the media as regards to why the US might have a stake in that region.

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