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
All this bodes poorly for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who wants to be elected as the country's next president in 2014, filling the seat of
Turkey's founder and first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan has almost all the stars aligned to achieve this goal. He has defanged Turkey's once
staunchly secularist military, and tamed the once inveterately anti-Erdogan business community and media. The PKK is what stands between Erdogan and the
Turkish presidency. If the Syrian crisis continues unabated, related PKK violence will take more Turkish lives, challenging Erdogan's authority further. In
such an eventuality, political imperatives alone will drive Erdogan to an interventionist policy against the Assad regime.
In other words, Erdogan may not have the patience to wait for the soft landing that Washington desires. This is where White House envoy to coordinate Syria
policy with Ankara comes in.
This envoy's task would be two fold. The first task is listening. Take for instance, recent reports that Ankara might be training anti-Assad elements,
while turning a blind eye to Salafist penetration into Syria. Although unverified, such reports make sense. Erdogan is determined to use any means
available to hasten the ouster of the Assad regime. A White House envoy who visits Ankara and the Turkish border with Syria would be able to decipher these
trends early on.