With its Syria plan in tatters, Turkey needs a strategy reboot | The Globe and Mail
By Hugh Pope
For much of the late 2000s, Turkey hoped that a booming economy, the prestige of combative Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a burst of regional admiration for its successful mix of Muslim governance and democracy would reap it a harvest of Middle Eastern influence and profit.
At the heart of this strategy was an intimate relationship with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, the model for Turkey’s “zero problems” policy. The two countries signed model deals for visa-less travel, free trade and infrastructure integration. The leaders brought half their Cabinets to summit meetings. The Assads even lunched with the Erdogans on the eve of their 2008 holiday on the Turkish riviera.
Now the Syrian catastrophe has landed squarely on Turkey’s doorstep: 450,000 refugees, with the UN predicting double that by year’s end; costs of $1-billion and rising to look after the influx, only a tenth of which is covered by outside donors; and increasing tensions on the border. A recent Syrian air force raid close to one Turkish border crossing killed five Syrians, wounded 50 people, hit an aid warehouse and an opposition base. Just days later at another border crossing, Syrians wanting to cross rioted, fired weapons and killed a Turkish policeman, wounded 11 other people and burned buildings and cars.
As regional instability has spread since 2010, Turkey’s Middle Eastern position has suffered too. The Libya war badly disrupted Turkey’s big contracting interests there. The loss of Syrian trucking routes to regional markets has joined the previous loss of Iraqi ones. Ankara’s backing of armed Syrian opposition groups has encouraged negative perceptions of Turkey acting not just as a would-be Sunni Muslim hegemon, but also as taking sides within the Sunni Arab world. Arab and Iranian commentators are critical of what they see as Ankara’s hubristic tendency to seek what they see as Ottoman-style regional dominance.
Photo: Flickr/World Economic Forum