ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey’s efforts to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to swap repression for reform have so far come to naught, exposing the limits of its influence in a country where Iran also wields clout.
Having embraced Assad as a new found friend in recent years, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has been reduced to hand-wringing over the killing of unarmed civilian protesters after the Syrian leader turned tanks against their own cities.
Some analysts say Turkey, a NATO member, has been turning away from the West under Erdogan over the past decade. But the changed landscape created by the Arab revolts in recent months has shown that Turkish leverage with Muslim states in the old dominions of the Ottoman Empire was not as strong as it hoped.
Erdogan, whose foreign policy over the past decade has been to eliminate all Turkey’s old problems with neighbors, increase trade and become a regional power, says that when the first Arab popular uprising broke out in Tunisia, he urged Assad to reform.
Late last month Erdogan sent his intelligence chief to Damascus to try to persuade Assad to take the reform path, but there was no sign of success.
“Could Turkey have done anything more -- I don’t think so,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
“The real problem concerns Turkey’s claims of influence, its abilities and capacities,” he said. “It could not induce Bashar al-Assad or the Baathist regime to implement reforms in time.”
Two years ago, Erdogan won respect in the Arab world for his condemnation of Israel’s killing of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. But, as a storm of popular uprisings blew through North Africa and the Middle East, he has been more circumspect over Arab autocrats killing pro-democracy protesters.
“Syrian issues are almost an issue of domestic policy for us,” Erdogan said on Monday in an interview with Channel 7, a Turkish television station regarded as close to his party.
Erdogan said more than 1,000 people had been killed in Syria and that he did not want to see a repeat of the 1982 bloodshed in Hama, where Assad’s father crushed an Islamist uprising, or the 1988 gassing of Kurds in the Iraqi town of Halabja during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who headed Iraq’s Baathists.
Paul Salem, from the Carnegie Endowment think tank in Washington, said Turkey would have done better in the eyes of many Arabs by speaking out more strongly against the actions of Assad and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s security forces.
“The Arab uprisings are effectively calling for the Arab world to be more like Turkey, democratic, with a vibrant civil society and political pluralism, secularism alongside Islam, and a productive and fairly balanced economy,” Salem wrote in the Los Angeles Times this week. “This could have been Turkey’s moment in the Middle East: the moment was lost.”
Syria, a country dominated for nearly five decades by an Alawite minority close to Shia Islam, poses the biggest test for Turkey as it competes with Iran for influence in Damascus.
“So far, the Iranians have more influence on the Syrian government than the Turkish government,” Walid Saffour, the London-based president of the Syrian Human Rights Committee, told Reuters during a meeting of Syrian opposition and rights groups in Istanbul in late April.
“But I think if the Syrian government is sane enough to listen to the language of logic, it will listen to the advice of the Turkish government.”
Hardliners in the Syrian government could be antagonized if Erdogan pushed harder for urgent reforms and more restraint.
“Because Turkey couldn’t unequivocally support the Syrian regime the way Iran has, the Syrians are rather cross with Turkey,” said Ozel. “Relations are going to be frostier.”
Turkey and Syria, which share an 850-km (530-mile) border, have come along way since 1998 when they almost went to war over Kurdish militants operating from Syrian territory.
Erdogan and Assad have had a visible rapport. In the past couple of years visa requirements were dropped for travel between the two countries, and Turkish and Syrian ministers have held regular strategic cooperation meetings.
Just a couple of weeks earlier, Erdogan revealed growing uncertainty over Assad’s intentions regarding reforms.
“Honestly I am having doubts,” Erdogan told the ATV news channel, adding he was unsure if Assad was being blocked, or he feared that reforms would not work, or he was being indecisive.
Some analysts say Turkey, a Muslim member of NATO, wants to keep dialogue going with the likes of Gaddafi and Assad, rather than join a chorus of condemnation that leaves such leaders feeling they have little to lose by lashing out.
Critics say that Erdogan’s reluctance to choose sides stems from concern over Turkey’s sizable business interests in Libya and Syria. Though in the case of Libya, Erdogan’s first priority was evacuating more than 20,000 Turks working there.
Others say Erdogan habitually cuts fellow Muslim leaders more slack. It is a familiar position for Erdogan to be in. Two years ago he congratulated Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his victory in an election the opposition said was fixed.
Last year, Erdogan opposed the imposition of more U.N. sanctions on Iran over its refusal to curb its nuclear energy program and dispel concerns that it may be aimed at developing atom bombs, rather than generate electricity as Tehran says.
This, along with Turkey’s estrangement from Israel, has fueled a widely held assessment that Ankara is turning away from the West to revive old friendships in the East.
Turkey’s leaders deny that. Despite having good relations with repressive governments, they say they want democracy to triumph in the region. They had no qualms about the toppling of autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia in January and February.
But when uprisings have flared in countries that are riven by religious, sectarian or ethnic fault lines, and lack institutions strong enough to ensure unity throughout any upheaval, Turkish leaders have measured their words.
For Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, nowhere poses more risk than Syria, with its mix of Sunni Arabs, Alawites, Kurds and Druze.
“This will hit us in the end,” Erdogan told ATV two days after the first refugees crossed into Turkey in late April.
Editing by Mark Heinrich