The first driver of Turkish policy is the Kurdish problem at home. Ankara is highly concerned about Damascus and Tehran's capacity to play the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) card. Second is the concern about regional dynamics. Given Tehran and Moscow's patronage of Damascus, Ankara is reluctant to confront Iran and Russia because of Syria. Yes, Turkey did confront Syria in the past; as recently as 1998, in the context of the PKK and Abdullah Öcalan, Ankara used very effective coercive diplomacy by mobilizing its troops at the Syrian border. But this point only proves the importance of the Kurdish factor. Moreover, in 1998 Syria posed something of an existentialist threat, and Turkish national interests were much clearer.
The third driver of Turkey's Syria policy is the concern about economic stability. Turkey depends on Iran and Russia for close to 85 percent of its energy consumption, particularly natural gas. The border with Syria is 900 kilometers long, and most of Turkey's exports to the Gulf went via this border. It is only normal that Turkey desires rapid stabilization of the situation in Syria rather than further chaos, bloodshed and a potential regional confrontation. Finally, the fourth factor driving Turkish policy is the concern that Washington will ask Turkey to play the leading role in Syria. The Turkish perception is that, as in Libya, Washington will want to “lead from behind.” In Syria this means Washington will “outsource” the bulk of military operations to Ankara. Simply put, Turkey doesn't want to “own” the crisis.
This last point stands in sharp contrast to the traditional neo-Ottoman narrative coming from Ankara. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu often argues that regional problems in the Middle East require regional solutions and that Turkey is prepared to lead in all areas. How can Ankara ask Western powers not to interfere in regional affairs while at the same time expecting the US to show more leadership in Syria? All this demonstrates the growing gap between Ankara's ambitious discourse and its actual willingness and capacity to act. As I argued in these pages last week, there is another school of thought in Turkish foreign policy that counters neo-Ottomanism. This second important strategic vision, Kemalism, is Ankara's default position. Where neo-Ottomanism is proactive and grandiose, Kemalism is cautious and always realistic in its assessment of Turkish national interests. It should come as no surprise that most Kemalists in Turkey are against any kind of intervention in Syria. Kemalism considers neo-Ottomanism to be an ideological foreign policy in search of unnecessary adventures. At the end of the day, Turkey's Kemalist institutions, namely the Turkish military and the foreign service, are very concerned about taking unilateral action without United Nations consent.
Given all these factors, there is a certain balance in Turkey's neo-Ottoman and Kemalist traditions that create inaction and deadlock. Despite its activist narrative, Ankara shows understandable reluctance to act and lead without maximum multilateral support and international legitimacy. This is why as long as Bashar al-Assad manages to stay in power, we should not expect drastic changes in Turkish policy. As long as Assad maintains his hold on power, Turkey will maintain its cautious balance between neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism. Today Damascus controls 80 percent of the country, while there are still pockets of resistance where the opposition shows resilience. Bashar's army units continue their crackdown. The rate of killing does not exceed a daily average 15 to 50 people, and Bashar makes cosmetic reforms and promises in the context of the Annan plan. In response, Ankara will continue to call for international conferences and pressure while drawing a clear line between military intervention and humanitarian intervention. In short, Ankara will resist the militarization of the crisis. It is no coincidence that under such circumstances Ankara and Washington are on the same page.