Waiting for Turkish Action in Syria

Can Turkey save the Arab Spring in Syria by enforcing a buffer zone in the north of the country?

Will Turkey save the “Arab Spring” in Syria and create a buffer zone in the north of the country to provide civilians safe haven from the Ba’athist regime of President Bashar al-Assad? Such a move would cement new Turkish foreign policy, which has shifted in favor of Arab demonstrators and away from their leaders, while enabling Ankara to battle the Kurdish insurgency that’s situated on its southern frontier.

Turkey, a major investor in Syria, for years pursued a “zero problems with neighbors” policy in the region before the Arab Spring forced it to pick sides.

In March of this year, it urged President Assad to “positively respond” to the demands of his people. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared at the time that a “reformist approach would help Syria to overcome the problems more easily.”

Assad didn’t listen though. The violent suppression of protests continued unabated by international pressure. The Turkish president, in August, said that his nation had “lost confidence” in Assad’s ability to democratize Syria. There was no place for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East anymore, said Abdullah Gül. “Clearly, the leaders of these countries will take the initiative or they will be changed by force.”

Whatever that force has amounted to so far, it hasn’t changed Assad’s posture nor, evidently, his determination to crush the uprising against him.

The Syrian president’s neighbors have long abandoned him. After Saudi king Abdullah condemned the violence in August, the Arab League proceeded to mediate — to no avail. Just this weekend, the organization had to admitted that its negotiated truce was being ignored by Damascus. Short of producing denunciations, there is very little more the league can do in unison to help the protesters.

Turkey, which has troops permanently stationed on the border to fend off Kurdish assaults, attacked insurgents in the north of Iraq as recently as August of this year with bombardments. Similar military action in Syria, perhaps justified as anti-insurgency operations against the Kurds, is not unthinkable.

Turkey has been coping with Syrian refugees and is anxious to position itself as the champion of the Arab Spring lest the new power brokers in countries as Egypt and possibly Syria remember that it was quite willing to work with their dictatorial predecessors until earlier this year. Now the country, governed by an Islamist party but steeped in a tradition of secularism, is a role model for Arab revolutionaries who are young and cosmopolitan but struggling to rally the support of religious elements which were long the only possible organized opposition across the Arab world.

Relations between Erdoğan’s party and the military haven’t been cordial. Scores of officers are detained on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the prime minister’s conservative government. This summer, the chief of the Turkish armed forces along with the heads of air force, army and navy resigned in protest. Erdoğan, apparently on guard against an army coup, may be only too happy to have them off to fight a war instead of interfering in the nation’s government.