Turkey, NATO & the ‘do good’ response in Syria

There is a crucial distinction to be made in diplomacy between selecting the response that does good, and one that feels good – in other words, the response that makes for better headlines, but which does not necessarily amount to anything more than a temporary band aid.

Painful problems often require painful solutions, and with much diplomacy conducted these days in the glare of publicity, it takes resolve and drive – and diplomatic skill – to push through the response that does good, no matter how it may play out around the world.

Few know this better than Lakhdar Brahimi, the new Joint Special Representative of the UN-LAS for Syria, and for NATO, this particular distinction of realpolitik has a significant bearing on its short-term future.

In an in-tray of pressing problems, Turkey looms large.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and his ruling AKP government have become increasingly staunch critics of Bashar al-Assad since it became clear that the promised reforms in Syria were not forthcoming. In recent statements, for example, the Turkish Prime Minister has labelled Syria a terrorist state.

Credibility being the lifeblood of leadership, PM Erdogan is very aware that such rhetoric will need substance before too long, and so he now finds himself in a corner, compounded by the facts that contrary to expectation, the regime has not collapsed, and that the West’s appetite for intervening has been nil.

Having gone out on a limb over Syria, domestic concerns now push PM Erdogan into a particular bind:

– Military intervention would be unpopular with Turkish public opinion;

– 15-20% of the population of Turkey are Alevis, a sect with a history of discrimination and similar beliefs and practices to Syria’s Alawites. The People’s Republican Party (CHP) have not supported regime change, while Alevis form the bedrock of CHP support;

– Public opinion is polarising, with Alevis in the Turkey-Syria border area increasingly unsympathetic to AKP policy;

– Turkey’s previously vaunted “zero problems with neighbours” foreign policy has given way to distrust, not least from and President Assad, the Shia governments of Iran and Iraq, not to mention China and Russia – and Israel;

– The refugee problem is rapidly mounting, threatening to become unmanageable;

– The Assad regime has been proving resilient to the support of regional and Western allies, whether it is logistical, intelligence or advisory support, and quite likely weapons from some quarters;

– The Syrian Kurdish party (PYD) is gaining in influence in northern Syria. Moves towards autonomy set alarms ringing for Ankara, who have noted an increase in PKK activity, which they suspect is encouraged by Damascus as a form of retaliation. The natural corollary of this worries Ankara, as questions will arise of why should talk of autonomy for Syrian Kurds not mean the same for Turkish Kurds?

In the search for a workable policy response – something which has not been easy to find given the delicate balance of divergent problems – the common defence provisions of Article 5 of the NATO charter must seem an attractive option, and particularly now that the UN Security Council has shown little enthusiasm to authorise the ‘safe zones’ that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu travelled to New York to petition for. Faced with a potential invocation of Article 5, NATO must be concerned at this state of affairs.

It is worth recalling comments JSR Brahimi made to the General Assembly on 4 September:

“The future of Syria will be built by its people and none other. The support of the international community is indispensable and urgent. It will only be effective if all pull in the same direction.”

Reviewing the approaches to Syria since the uprising began, it is clear that supplying weapons, intelligence and logistical support to one side, while certainly a ‘feel good’ response, serves only to perpetuate the conflict, one that will lead to complete destruction if left to further degenerate.

The absence of negotiation is biting, and it is clear that regime change is an unattractive concept to some key players. Instead, it would be better to think in terms of a negotiated democratic transition. What is needed is sustained engagement with Iran, Russia, and China in order to move the situation towards a negotiated democratic transition, which looks to be the most viable way forward, no matter how unpalatable elements of this may seem to some.

With Turkey in need of some kind of response to the situation they find themselves in, this is the ‘do good’ response that Lakhdar Brahimi – and increasingly, NATO – must be aware of.

Guy Gabriel is a Senior Associate at Albany Associates, Ltd.

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