Turkey's Mixed Messages on Syria

Ankara once encouraged intervention in the crisis. Why did it stop?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) in Aleppo, Syria on February 6, 2011. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL—In Istanbul’s religiously conservative Fatih neighborhood, the four-fingered yellow Rabia signs supporting Egypt’s pro-Morsi protest movement are ubiquitous, as residents unabashedly identify with the Muslim Brotherhood’s struggle against Egypt’s armed forces. But there is no sign of support for the impending Western military conflict with Syria. Given the devastating loss of life experienced by Syria’s Muslims, the silence punctuates increasingly mixed feelings in this country about an intervention that Ankara has long advocated.

Turkey, long hailed as one of America’s most important regional allies, has shifted from a vociferous advocate of intervention to an ambivalent player in the looming conflict as military action draws closer. This underscores the country’s domestic political constraints, as well as strains in the alliance between Washington and Ankara that have long been simmering just beneath the surface.

In many ways, Ankara has been the subcontractor of America’s Syria policy, owing mostly to its geographic location. But Turkey did not need America’s prompting, given the direct impact Syrian violence has had on the stability of its eastern flank, as well as concerns about Kurdish nationalism in Syria. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also used the Syria issue as a rallying cry in the Islamic and Arab world, decrying American and Western reticence to act as the death toll climbed to over one hundred thousand.

But as the drumbeat of war has quickened (in fits and starts) in Washington, Erdogan has toned down his rhetoric. For one, it’s difficult for an Islamist leader to fully endorse war against another Muslim country. Similar concerns led Turkey to oppose the Iraq war in 2003, causing strains with the Bush administration. Although, in contrast to Iraq, the West is not preparing to occupy Syria, even the expected limited Americans strikes in Syria are difficult for Erdogan to celebrate.

Erdogan will be constrained further by political forces to his left, such as the secular Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP). Already the op-ed pages of Turkish newspapers like Today’s Zaman are beginning to question the wisdom of a Western-led military intervention, and several observers with whom we spoke believe that they can discern the rumblings of an anti-imperialist movement opposed to the war. This movement already has its own Twitter hash tag, along with planned protests on September 1 in Istanbul’s Taksim neighborhood.

Turkish reactions are also influenced by its policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors. There are fears here of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad sponsoring terrorist attacks: Turks and Western analysts suspect that Assad may have sponsored a February suicide bombing at the U.S. embassy in Ankara. The incident was claimed by a leftist group called People’s Liberation Party Front (DHKP-C). Since DHKP-C had been moribund for several decades, the question arose why it was suddenly able to return.

For these reasons, Turkey will remain on the sidelines of any war with Syria. Its role will be limited to logistical support, if that. While Incirlik, located just west of Syria, is an obvious launch point for an American intervention, the U.S.’s current plans call for cruise missile strikes from elsewhere. As one Western official put it to us, “Turkey has been that guy who is constantly prodding you to go to war. And then when it comes time to fight, he says, ‘That’s great—I’m happy to hold your coat.’”

Ankara’s ambivalence runs deeper than its fear of direct conflict with Assad: it is also concerned about angering other powerful neighbors, notably Iran. Despite falling in the anti-Assad camp, Turkey has helped Iran—one of Assad’s top patrons—to circumvent international sanctions. In February 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that Halkbank, Turkey’s state-owned bank, was processing “gas-for-gold” transactions with Iran despite a sanctions regime prohibiting such transactions. Under the sanctions, Iran was allowed to sell gas in exchange for Turkish liras that could be used to purchase approved local goods required to fulfill humanitarian needs. But instead, as Reuters reported, Turkey sold gold to Iranian traders, who then shipped it to Dubai. The gold thus constitutes reserves that Iran’s ruling regime—and Assad—needed to survive.

Washington called out Ankara on this gas-for-gold scheme, and it appears to have ended: economists here have noted a drop-off in gold exports. But the damage was done. According to a report produced by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Roubini Group, Turkey may have helped Iran take in $6 billion at a time when Iran was bolstering Assad with cash, weapons, and military personnel.

Iran is now threatening to respond to any attack on Assad. Similarly, the Syrian regime could respond to a U.S. attack by firing on American allies, including Turkey. Despite its hawkish rhetoric, Turkey wants to avoid that at all costs. Washington thus finds itself on the precipice of a war that Turkey has long demanded, and will get little thanks in return.