Washington must engage Turkey before conflagration further complicates U.S. options for addressing the Syrian civil war, writes Soner Cagaptay.
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.
Turkey, a NATO ally, might prematurely get pulled into the Syria conflict.
To avoid this risky scenario, Washington must be able to anticipate Ankara’s next steps, and find ways to pull Ankara back when necessary.
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.
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.
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. …….
The envoy’s second job would be to wield the White House’s clout in real-time. Erdogan, who has an amicable relationship with President Obama, would feel compelled to listen to Obama’s emissary.
Erdogan is savvy enough not to launch a full-scale military invasion of Syria. Such an adventure would surpass Turkey’s economic and military capacity. ….
If not coordinated with the United States, such Turkish steps will complicate U.S. Syria policy. For starters, an impetuous move on Turkey’s part would force Washington and Ankara to hash out their “day after” policies before having a chance to work out differences of views on the role of opposition elements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.
Soner Cagaptay is the Beyer Family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute.