An eventual military intervention in Syria and its reflections

November 27, 2011, Sunday/ 17:02:00

The views which advise the use of military force in order to depose the Assad regime from power have been heard more frequently as international pressure on Damascus has increased. Parallel to this, it has been often suggested that Turkey should play a leadership role in this process.

The ultimatum of the Arab League that Syria’s membership might be suspended shows that the legitimacy of the Assad regime in international platforms has now been under under strong doubts. It is known that some Western countries, particularly the U.S.A and France,  are trying to manifacture consent for a military intervention indirectly. Besides, in the recent days, some articles read that the time of sending the Assad regime away has finally arrived and they put forward that this would seriously restrict Iran’s influence in the region. Russia, China and Iran which have thus far supported the Assad regime may not be able to continue their policies for long. The circles who think that the Assad regime would rather be imploded through internal dynamics may not easily resist a military intervention if a civil war spreads to neighbouring countries and causes serious human losses.

In such an atmosphere the most important question which occupies Turkish foreign policy makers is undoubtly whether Turkey should participate in a military operation and in which way its participation should occur. Under which conditions should Turkey join an international military operation and should it lead such a formation? The answers that will be given to these questions will not only offer important clues about the future projection of Turkish foreign policy but also shed light on how Turkey will be perceived from outside.

According to the declarations of some high level authority figures, Turkey’s eventual military intervention in Syria seems to depend on the realization of some conditions. An ethnic and sectarian warfare in Syria, the spread of this war to some big cities like Aleppo and Damascus, the human losses that might  arise in this context, the flux of many Syrians to Turkish borders and its negative effects on Turkey’s interior stability may trigger a possible Turkish intervention.  In addition, it would be easier for Turkey to take part in an international military operation if the majority of Arab countries and all of the permanent members of United Nations Security Council lent their support.

We know that Turkey has so far tried to do its best to make sure that non- military methods yielded positive results. Of all Turkish efforts, the support given to the international  isolation of the Assad regime, the suspension of bilateral commercial relations and hosting of the meetings of opposition forces stand out. Although avoiding participation in military intervention and striving for the success of non-military options are clearly in Turkey’s interersts, Turkey might fight itself taking part in a military intervention. 

Apart from this, it is for sure that Turkey’s participation in an eventual military intervention, without waiting for the necessary conditions to arise, will inflict remarkable damages on Turkish foreign policy. In this case, the perception that Turkey is now following a foreign policy that leans on more hard than soft power elements will be strengthened. Relations with the countries in the region, especially with Iran, will go worse. The rivalry between Tehran and Ankara over Damascus will increase and this will inevitably fuel Iran’s eagerness to get nuclear weapons. It should not be overlooked that the circles which defend Assad’s ouster by the use of force try to justify their views by underlining that this will certainly help weaken the Iranian regime. Therefore, it would not be difficult to guess that Iran will act irrationally should it feel cornered. 

In this context, the views that what happen in Syria are not Turkey’s business and they do not affect Turkey’s internal security negatively should also be taken into account. It is likely  that the oppostion parties in the parliament will argue against Turkey’s participation in an eventual military intervention. Some of the views that have been so far expressed by the opposition are the following: the conditions of 1998 have not occured yet; Syria’s efforts to give harm to Turkey by using the PKK card is still tolerable; siding with the Sunni forces against the Alewite in Syria may fuel the sectarian tension in Turkey; an intervention in Syria will disract Turkey’s attention and energy from more urgent problems at home, such as the Kurdish dispute and the writing of a new constitution; and intervening in other states’ internal affairs, despite the humanitarian concerns, might expose Turkey to more external pressure concerning domestic problems. Besides, an intervention might help strengthen the perception that Turkey has been after a regional hegemony by using force and the AKP government has been trying to resusciate the Ottoman Empire. 

One of the most important consequences of a one-sided/unilateral Turkish military intervention is that EU-Turkey relations will be negatively affected by this. The image that Turkey employs military force in foreign policy and tries to achieve its interests unilaterally would be in contradiction with the foreign and security policy norms of the European Union. The perception that Turkey no longer values the accession negotiations and does not have a trust in EU project will be further strengthened.

However, any Turkish intervention will likely bring Turkey closer to U.S. and the relations between these two countries will likely unfold more in bilateral than multilateral mechanisms in the years ahead. The United States has already begun to shift its strategic attention away from Europe and the Middle East towards South and Far Esat Asia. This will increase the need on its part to guarantee security cooperation with such countries as Turkey to make sure that its interests in the Middle East be achieved. Against the background of the recent rapproachment in Turkish- American relations, one could put forward the argument that bilateral relations will further improve in the years to come. Although it is not a negative  development by itself, this might help strengthen the perception that Turkey act as a protegee of the U.S. in the Middle East. And this perception will likely dilute the authencity, legitimacy and originality of Turkey’s leadership claims in the region. It should not be forgotten that despite all the public diplomacy efforts during the Obama presidency, the current image of the U.S. in the Middle East is not better than the Bush period. The pragmatic and utilitarian approach of the Obama administration during the course of the developments associated with the so-called Arab Spring has further weakened the US’ image.  

»» Assoc.Prof.Dr. Tarık Oğuzlu, ORSAM Advisor, Middle East - Bilkent University Department of International Relations

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