For Obama, the Key to Damascus May Lie in Ankara

The U.S. must rein in Turkey before a conflagration further complicates America's options toward the Syrian civil war.

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A Turkish soldier takes up position near the border with Syria, in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar on December 8, 2012. (Laszlo Balogh/Reuters)

This post is part of "Obama and the Middle East: Act Two," a series produced with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on U.S. foreign policy in the president's second term. See our full coverage here here.

Syria promises to be a major headache for the Obama administration during its second term. But if Washington works with Ankara effectively, Turkey can help the U.S. achieve an endgame in Damascus. To facilitate this coordination, Washington should assign a full-time, high-level White House envoy to work with Ankara on Syria.

Escalating clashes along the Syrian-Turkish border have raised fears that Turkey, a NATO ally, might prematurely get pulled into the Syria conflict. Policymakers and the Turkish public held their breath following the downing of a Turkish fighter jet in June 2012, and escalating artillery duels have raised fears of imminent Turkish intervention.

To avoid this risky scenario, Washington must be able to anticipate Ankara's next steps, and find ways to pull Ankara back when necessary. This is where a White House envoy could play a crucial role. The Turks, reveling in their post-imperial glory, would greatly appreciate a specially-designated White House representative who would talk to them, and they would listen to this envoy, too.

Although Turkey and the United States both want Assad to go, the two countries are in different places. For Washington, Syria is a smoldering conflict, and Americans abhor the Assad regime. But Washington fears the unknown after Assad, and is reluctant to get dragged into a war in another Muslim country. So, the United States has been taking baby steps in Syria and avoiding military engagement. The American strategy is designed in anticipation of a soft-landing in Syria. The hope is that the opposition will coalesce and take over the country gradually, deposing Assad and avoiding the anarchy that would ensue if the Assad regime were to evaporate overnight.

For Ankara, the Syrian conflict is a conflagration next door that needs to be extinguished now. Assad has to go, and fast. Many reasons drive the Turkish calculus. First, there is the uptick in Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) attacks. As soon as Ankara took sides against the Assad regime in August 2011, Damascus retaliated, allowing the Turks' archenemy, the PKK, and its Syrian franchise, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to operate on its territory again.

Iran, too, has acted to punish Turkey for its stance against Damascus. Only days after Ankara called for the ouster of the Assad regime in September 2011, Iran entered a truce with the PKK and its Iranian franchise, Party for Democratic Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), which it had been hitherto fighting. With this ceasefire, Tehran effectively secured the PKK's rear flank and freed its hand to target Turkey. Accordingly, the PKK has become a bigger menace to Turkey than it has been since the early 1990s

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Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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