Turkey, despite its rush to express solidarity with the Palestinian leadership in Gaza, could not have been happy with the timing of the latest Israeli-Hamas conflict. While Turkey has used the conflict to ramp up its anti-Israel rhetoric, I would have to assume that the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister, and the defense establishment are still focused almost exclusively on the on-going conflict in Syria.
Turkey’s Syria policy is primarily aimed at ensuring that the country retains its territorial integrity and maintains a strong central government. Given Syria’s relatively large Kurdish population, Turkey’s policy is relatively straight forward. Ankara, despite growing ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, is intensely uncomfortable with the idea of greater Kurdish autonomy in Syria. Thus, Ankara’s efforts have been aimed at strengthening the opposition, primarily to ensure that a post-Assad Syria has a strong government in waiting, and agitating for the imposition of a no-fly-zone.
Ankara, which had supported a managed top-down transition in the early days of the conflict, abruptly changed course and adopted the policy of externally aided regime change about a year ago. Shortly thereafter, Turkey began agitating for the imposition of a no-fly-zone. The West, and in particular the United States, has resisted these calls, arguing that intervention could lead to a sectarian conflict. Turkey, on the other hand, maintains that the international community has a responsibility to protect the opposition and Syrian civilians. It has paired this rhetoric with its on-going efforts to unify the opposition.
More recently, however, there are indications that some countries in the West are re-thinking their Syria strategy. While no one – and I mean no one – is seriously entertaining the idea of imposing a no-fly-zone, there appears to be some movement towards further aiding the rebels. The policy, while very vague and undefined, appears aimed at recognizing the new American/Qatari backed and organized Syrian National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people, and providing more non-lethal aid. While not even close to what Turkey wants from the West, it was a start towards greater involvement in the Syrian conflict.
For Turkey, its efforts to impose a multi-lateral a no-fly-zone were aimed squarely at the United States. Turkey appears to have realized that it needs U.S. support for intervention, and has thus adopted a myriad of tactics to try and convince the Americans to get involved. Despite these efforts, Turkey appears to be making little headway in Washington. Its only hope, in my opinion, is to try and convince the Americans that continued inaction undermines the “official opposition” and strengthens the more radical fighters. A United States eager to limit these groups’ influence would then begin taking small steps to help isolate the opposition’s more radical elements. After the small shift proved inadequate, the West (in theory) would feel compelled to deepen their commitment to groups that it “trusts”.
Turkey had hoped that the election would allow Obama to deepen the United States’ involvement in Syria, making clear over and over again that is expected an American change in policy post-election. The media, which had been paying close attention to the rising causalities and the growing number of radical fighters, were helping drive the Turkish narrative. However, the ongoing the political witch hunt controversy over Benghazi and the Israeli action in Gaza has ripped Syria off of the front pages.
Absent coverage, and with the two biggest U.S. proponents of intervention, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, locked in a media fight to bar Susan Rice’s nomination for Secretary of State, Turkey’s chances of rallying support are grim. Moreover, Israel’s reprisal attacks have pushed Syria from the front pages of American media. Anderson Cooper, along with all of the other major U.S. correspondents, have flocked to Israel/Palestine to keep the world up-to-date on the latest happenings in the Gaza strip.
With no end in sight, and the possibility of an Israeli ground assault still looming, the Syrian civil war is likely to continue to be neglected by most media organizations. The absence of media coverage provides Assad with a reprieve and deprives Turkey of a powerful tool for its on-going campaign to convince the West to deepen its involvement in Syria. With world’s eyes now focused on Gaza, Turkey may be faced with the prospect of continued disinterest in its most pressing security concern.