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Turkey’s High Stakes Foreign Policy Gamble

A diplomatic dance is unfolding on the Middle Eastern stage between Iran and Turkey, who are jockeying for position while attempting to influence the outcome of the ongoing political drama in Syria. Both countries now appear to be united in their public appeals to President Assad to end his crackdown on domestic opponents of his regime. This has been a consistently-held position for Turkey, but a rather ironic and improbable position for Iran. Ahmadinejad has not exactly practiced what he is now preaching vis-à-vis his own domestic opposition, and Iran of course has a long history of crushing internal political dissent.

Syria has for decades been as a primary conduit for Iran’s projection of power in the Middle East and opposition to Israel, and Iran and Syria have enjoyed a close political and military relationship. Although Iranian/Turkish relations have mostly been warm diplomatically, militarily, and economically, just two months ago Iran issued a stern warning to Turkey to stay out of Syria’s internal affairs, suggesting that Turkey has designs on a post-Assad Syria. Iran threatened retaliation if Turkey’s air bases are used by U.S. forces against Assad, as U.S. and NATO forces did against Libya’s Gaddhafi. Iran has said that in such a situation, U.S. and NATO bases in Turkey could become targets of Iranian missiles – a not so veiled indication that Turkey is already the target of Iranian missiles.

For its part, Turkey has chosen a confrontational path toward Syria, not entirely consistent with its recent ‘zero problems’ approach to foreign policy. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Turkey did not hesitate to weigh in on the conflict, urging moderation and patience on the part of the Assad regime, rather than adopting a neutral stance. Depending on the outcome of the Syrian conflict, this will either be proven to have been an appropriate stance, or ill advised.

If Assad is forced from power, Turkey will have earned some goodwill on the part of the new government in Damascus; but if Assad stays, Turkey’s stance will only have served to heighten bilateral tension, and may result in a difficult relationship between Turkey and Syria for many years to come.

No doubt Erdogan sees the Syrian conflagration as an opportunity to upstage Iran in perceived regional dominance – a unique historical opportunity, given the longevity of the Assad regime and the continued metamorphosis of the Arab Spring. With three of the five existing battles of the Spring now over, and all three ending in favor of anti-incumbent forces (in the case of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia), the longer-term writing appears to be on the wall; even if Assad does survive the current opposition to his regime, the longevity of his government will surely eventually be cut short. Both Iran and Turkey know this. As a result, in the long-run, Turkey’s appeal for moderation and tolerance in Syria should be proven as a feather in Erdogan’s cap.

Turkey’s actions must also of course be seen in the context of its deteriorating relations with Israel, which have grown frostier in recent weeks, given the bilateral sparring over the results of the UN’s Palmer Report on last year’s Palestinian flotilla incident. At least part of this is political posturing by Turkey—taking such a stern anti-Israeli view buys considerable political capital with the average man in the Arab street. Turkey would rather sacrifice its relationship with Israel rather than risk losing its street credibility throughout the region. By upping the ante in suggesting that its navy will accompany future flotillas to Palestine, Turkey has drawn a distinct line in the sand and has challenged Israel to a duel. This is not only likely to seriously damage its long-term relationship with Israel, but risks damaging its relationship with the U.S. and NATO.

On one hand, this is an awkward time to be proffering such a challenge; on the other hand, it may also be seen as a deft overture—casting barbs at Israel and the West just at the time when they need Turkey’s collaboration to promote their own objectives vis-à-vis the Spring. This must seem to Erdogan a brilliant tactical move. But as Erdogan strives to achieve undisputed dominance in regional political affairs, Turkey’s foreign policy is in disarray. As a result of its recent actions, Turkey has upended its own longstanding military cooperation with Israel and joint anti-Kurd exercises with both the Syrian and Iranian governments. It originally opposed the rebels fighting the Gaddafi regime, only to reverse itself and later support the transitional government in Tripoli.

And Erdogan recently reversed Turkey’s longstanding position in favor of UN-sponsored reunification talks in Cyprus. There is value in being seen to be flexible and responsive in foreign affairs, but turning the pillars of one’s own successful foreign policy upside down at the same time is unlikely to yield favorable long-term results on all fronts.

Erdogan is a brilliant tactician and has proven himself to be quite adept both at responding to events in the region and seeking to influence their outcome. He is playing a high stakes game at a time when the stakes could not be higher. One has to wonder whether his quest to become a hero to the average man in the Arab Street may ultimately backfire, and at what cost? If the U.S. has to choose between Turkey and Israel, it will naturally choose Israel. Both Iran and Syria now clearly view Turkey as an enemy, and Israel is about to give up on trying to repair bilateral relations (if it has not done so already).

Until recently, Turkey had been seen as a voice of moderation and respect as a result of a penchant for neutrality. It is quickly coming to be seen as more self-serving than selfless, and more concerned with achieving regional political dominance than achieving peace and stability. The average man in the Arab street surely sees the difference.