October 4, 2012

Soner Cagaptay is director of the Turkish Research Program and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He also contributes to CNN’s Global Public Square blog.

The close relationship that President Obama has built with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has provided the United States with a key Muslim ally in the Middle East. Washington and Ankara have worked closely to stabilize Iraq. Yet a storm awaits them in Syria.

Turkey announced Thursday that it has authorized military operations in Syria following Syrian shelling of Turkish areas this week. As the crisis in Syria has deepened, the White House has appeared willing to wait for the demise of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. For Ankara, the crisis has become an emergency.

As turmoil in Syria has grown over the past 18 months, Ankara has presumed that the United States and Turkey were on the same page regarding regime change. Now, though, differences are emerging.

The Obama administration is hesitant toward Syria for several reasons, including reticence to act before the November elections and war-weariness among Americans. Erdogan appears to view such concerns as cover for general indifference to Turkey’s Syria problem. A sign of such sentiment emerged Sept. 5, when Erdogan chided Obama on CNN for lacking initiative on Syria — a rare rebuke from an otherwise steadfast friend.

This statement could be a harbinger. Erdogan has a penchant for treating foreign leaders as friends — and losing his temper when he thinks his friends have not stood by him. The more Washington looks the other way on Syria, the more upset Erdogan is likely to get over what he sees as Obama’s unwillingness to support his policy.

To the White House, the Syrian crisis has appeared manageable. As the conflict grinds on, some have grown concerned that Syria will radicalize as Bosnia did in the 1990s: When the world did not act to end the slaughter of Muslims in the Balkan country, jihadists moved in to join the fight, and they succeeded in convincing the otherwise staunchly secular-minded Bosnian Muslims that the world had abandoned them and that they were better off with jihadists.

U.S. policy holds that a gradual soft landing could be possible in Syria. The hope is that the opposition groups will coalesce and take down the Assad regime, eliminating the need for hasty foreign intervention — an option that Washington fears could cause chaos.

Ankara, however, wants an accelerated soft landing. Particularly with this week’s strikes, Turkey feels the heat of the crisis next door — Erdogan has reason to believe that time is not on his side.

The Syrian conflict’s sectarian nature is percolating into Turkey. More than 100,000 mostly Sunni Arab Syrians have taken refuge there, fleeing persecution by Assad and his Alawite militias. Alawite Arabs in southern Turkey resent the Sunni refugees, mirroring Syria’s Alawite-Sunni split. Angry Alawites in Turkey’s southern Hatay province oppose their country’s policy toward the Assad regime, and since the summer they have been holding regular pro-Damascus and anti-Ankara demonstrations. This is Ankara’s problem, and it might get ugly if Syria descends into full-blown sectarian warfare.

Ankara also fears the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Lately, the Assad regime has allowed the PKK to operate in Syria as a means to retaliate against Ankara. A PKK car bombing in August in Gaziantep, a large Turkish city near the border, has raised citizens’ fears about PKK infiltration. For Erdogan, the political cost associated with Syrian turmoil has also risen.

None of this bodes well for Erdogan’s hopes to become Turkey’s first popularly elected president in 2014 (until recently, the country’s presidents were elected by parliament). Although Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 49.5 percent of the vote in last year’s elections, further PKK attacks are likely to dent his much-liked tough-guy image.

Moreover, Erdogan has won successive elections since 2002 by delivering record-breaking economic growth, made possible by Turkey’s image as a stable country safe for business and investors. The more protracted the Syrian crisis becomes, the more Turkey’s image could be tarnished, blighting a key ingredient of its economic success and feeding the perception that Erdogan is not delivering. Erdogan believes that he cannot stand by and watch Syria pull Turkey into the maelstrom.

In the coming days, Ankara is likely to press Washington for more aggressive action against the Assad regime, including U.S.-supported havens for refugees in Syria and measures to hasten Assad’s fall.

Washington’s response is likely to be sticking to the soft-landing strategy while trying to slow Erdogan down.

As serious as these policy differences are, they are not likely to rupture the Obama-Erdogan relationship. Turkey relies on the United States too much to sacrifice its relationship lightly. Turkey is increasingly wary of Iran’s regional ambitions: Erdogan knows that Tehran’s Shiite regime militarily supports the Assad regime in Syria and the government of Iraqi Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom Ankara detests. The tumult of the Arab Spring has led Ankara to revise its erstwhile autarchic foreign policy and Turkey now seeks security with NATO — a shift symbolized by Ankara’s agreement in September 2011 to host a major missile-defense project that NATO can use as a bulwark against Iran, as well as Russia and China.

Still, given Obama and Erdogan’s divergent policies on Syria, a storm between them appears almost unavoidable.