POMED Notes: Ankara, Washington and the Syrian Crisis – Geopolitical and Regional Implications
Dr. F. Stephen Larrabee discussed Turkey’s new role in the broader Middle East on Tuesday at the Rumi Forum. Larrabee is a Senior Staff member at the RAND Corporation in Washington, D.C. and holds the RAND Corporate Chair in European Security. After delivering his remarks, entitled “Ankara, Washington and the Syrian Crisis: Geopolitical and Regional Implications,” Larrabee took questions on Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. and fallout from the Syrian crisis.
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Larrabee opened by noting “the Arab Spring has shattered Turkey’s policy on the Middle East.” Turkey’s “zero problems” approach to its neighbors was based on maintaining the status-quo, a strategy now in shambles. Turkey has been forced to develop new approaches to the region, with a greater emphasis on popular attitudes and the nature of the regimes it deals with. Previously, Turkey’s relations with Syria and Iran had improved, despite the despotic governing styles of these regimes, but this will no longer be possible, Larrabee argued. Erdogan initially failed at reducing Syrian tensions because Turkey underestimated Assad’s resilience and overestimated Turkey’s ability to shape events in the Middle East. Turkey has been forced to accept that “without strong support from the U.S., Turkish options are limited” in the Middle East, Larrabee said. Turkey predicted the U.S. would have a stronger reaction to the Syria crisis, but when the U.S. instead remained largely on the sidelines, “Turkey was left hanging,” according to Larrabee. He identified two major benefactors of the Syrian crisis: Syrian Kurds, who now have an historic opportunity to gain autonomy, and the P.K.K., which has become more assertive and increased attacks, signs of bolstered support from Syria and Iran.
Larrabee concluded by sketching five potential outcomes for the Syria crisis and what each might mean for the region: an internal “palace coup” that replaces Assad with other members of the Alawite leadership, leading to continued opposition, refugee flows and regional instability; a total collapse of the regime leading to a political transition but continued factionalism and instability; a prolonged civil war, which would make an eventual stable transition almost impossible and increase regional violence and spillover; a fragmented state with semi-autonomous zones for Kurds, Alawites and Sunnis, which Larrabee said would be “highly unstable”; or a victory for Assad and ensuing revenge violence. Larrabee said the two most likely scenarios are a prolonged civil war or a fragmented state, either of which will lead to increasing strains between the U.S. and Turkey.
Larrabee addressed NATO in the Q&A session, saying the organization has not displayed a “roaring enthusiasm” to get involved. This is a dangerous issue, Larrabee claimed, as there will be dire consequences if Turkey gets the impression it cannot rely on NATO. There has already been a sharp decline in Turkey’s public support for NATO, with just 35 percent expressing a positive view of the organization, Larrabee said. In Syria, there is already broad resentment against the U.S. for not helping the rebels and the next Syrian government will remember what the U.S. failed to do, Larrabee promised. “Doing nothing will have serious repercussions—it already has,” Larrabee said. The U.S. must at least do a better job of working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to help keep arms away from al-Qaeda in Syria, Larrabee argued. The next U.S. administration must recognize the danger of sitting back and waiting for things to play out. Larrabee endorsed a No Fly Zone as the best solution to help turn the tide in Syria, but admitted it is also the most difficult option as it amounts to an act of war.