Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zubi harshly criticized the Turkish government early last week over Ankara's proposal that an interim government succeed the al Assad regime, saying that "Turkey isn't the Ottoman Sultanate; the Turkish Foreign Ministry doesn't name custodians in Damascus, Mecca, Cairo and Jerusalem." Being the spokesman for a pariah regime requires a mastery of propaganda. Al-Zubi has not disappointed in this regard, mounting a strong rhetorical offensive against Syria's powerful northern neighbor.
While his latest rebuke of Turkey will not save the al Assad regime (much less his own career), he is tapping into a powerful narrative in the region, one that will have stronger and stronger resonance in the Arab world as Turkey is forced to play a more assertive role in the region.
Great Expectations in Ankara
As Ankara is discovering, the resurgence of a nation can be an awkward and rocky process. Things were simpler for Turkey in the early part of the past decade when the regional climate allowed Turkey to re-emerge cautiously, with a white flag in hand and phrases like "zero problems with neighbors" on its lips. The region has since become far more unforgiving, with violent political transformations nipping at Anatolia's borders, Iran putting up stiff competition for regional influence, Russia's resurgence proceeding apace and the United States increasingly losing interest in the role of global policeman. The region is pushing Turkey into action regardless of whether Ankara is ready to take on the responsibility.
The past week offered several glimpses into Turkey's growing pains. Turkish and Syrian border troops shelled each other after Syrian mortar fire killed five Turkish civilians. Turkish fighter jets scrambled after the Syrian air force attacked a town along the Syrian side of the border. Turkish-Russian tensions also flared when Turkey intercepted a Syria-bound plane from Moscow allegedly carrying radar equipment. And a nervous Ankara watched as a coalition of Kurdish groups from Syria, northern Iraq, Iran and Turkey gathered in Paris to brainstorm ways to exploit the shifting regional landscape and propel a campaign for Kurdish statehood.
The Basis for a Negotiation
The conflict in Syria offers both a threat and an opportunity for Ankara. Turkey took a risk when it became the most ardent and visible backer of the Syrian rebellion. Now, tens of thousands of refugees are flowing across the border into Turkey. The threat of sectarian warfare spreading past Syria's borders looms. And the exposure of Turkey's regional competition with Iran has elevated the Kurdish militant threat from a domestic sore point to a weakness that regional competitors like Iran can exploit.
Turkey is also closely monitoring a critical force that has begun to shape the region: the rise of Islamist movements and the discrediting of Arab secularist police states. The transition from secular autocracy will be tumultuous, but the more leverage Turkey has with this Pan-Arab Islamist movement, the better prepared it will be to manage its neighborhood. An opportunity is thus developing for Turkey in which it can assert its Islamist credentials alongside its ability to compete effectively with Iran and to deal with the West. Turkey is uniquely positioned to steer the Islamist movement while the Arab street still requires a regional backer in its challenge to the old regimes and to keep Iran at bay. But Arab attitudes toward Turkey will shift with time as Turkey's expectations of a growing sphere of influence in the Arab world inevitably clash with the Muslim Brotherhood's vision of a Pan-Arab Islamist movement following its own course, as opposed to one set by Ankara.
Turkey has several immediate challenges. First, it is attempting to prevent a power vacuum from expanding in Syria that would fuel Kurdish separatism. Second, it is trying to push back the Iranian sphere of influence while expanding its own into the Arab world. Third, it wants to be taken seriously as a regional leader. Heavily constrained as it is, Ankara appears to have chosen to tackle this array of issues primarily through dialogue.
Turkey wants to avoid regime change in Syria, and it is not alone. Neither the states trying to retain influence in Syria, like Iran and Russia, nor the states trying to force a political transformation in the Levant, like Turkey, the United States, Saudi Arabia, France and Qatar, are prepared to weather the consequences of debaathification, which would dismantle the state machinery, sideline the Alawite minority and plunge the country more deeply into civil war. A growing consensus centered on removing the al Assads while largely maintaining the regime has created an opportunity for dialogue between the United States and Turkey on one side and Russia and Iran on the other. Tehran and Moscow have used the monthslong stalemate in the Syrian conflict to edge their way into discussions over a post-al Assad government. The Russians and Iranians have positioned themselves for a possible agreement that facilitates an exit for the al Assads while requiring a prominent space for the Alawites in a new government, something that would preserve Russian and Iranian influence in Syria.
The urgency to negotiate the Syrian transition is escalating just as one of the key pillars Stratfor identified from the start of the conflict, the cohesion of the Alawites, appears to be breaking down. Recently, clashes have erupted between Alawite clans in the coastal Alawite strongholds of Latakia and Qardaha, the birthplace of former President Hafiz al Assad. Evidence also has emerged supporting claims that a handful of Alawite military officers have recently defected from the regime. Critical Alawite defections could accelerate in the coming weeks as fewer Alawites see the survival of the al Assads as necessary to their own survival.
As the al Assad clan continues to weaken, Turkey has sought to stitch together negotiations already fraught with complications. One look at the participants in the discussion over a post-al Assad Syria explains the difficulty.
The U.S.-Iranian Dynamic
The first major dialogue for Turkey to mediate is between the United States and Iran. The United States has no interest in initiating a military intervention in Syria, though it is preparing for the possibility that U.S. intelligence assets and special operations forces will have to secure Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles in the event of a regime meltdown. The United States also does not want to engage in a military confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program. Washington thus has elected a strategy whereby Turkey does the bulk of the work on Syria while Washington focuses on weakening Iran through sanctions pressure, covert operations and building up a credible military threat in the Persian Gulf. Washington hopes to coerce Iran into negotiations where it can extract hefty concessions from Tehran on issues ranging from Syria to the Iranian nuclear program.