ANKARA (Reuters) - Just over a year ago, Turkey’s prime minister addressed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus as “my brother”. Today, illusions of kinship are long gone and the region’s rising power finds itself marshalling efforts to press him from power, but increasingly wary of being pitched into military action.
The falling out between Assad and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan grew personal as well as diplomatic as Syria’s president ignored Turkish calls for restraint and pressed his attacks on protesters. Erdogan drew a comparison with Nazi Germany in some of the strongest words of any major leader on Syria.
In one email, intercepted and published in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Assad’s wife Asma is asked if she would pass her email address to Erdogan’s wife. “I use this account only for family and friends,” she replies. “It would be difficult for me at this stage to consider her in either category after the insults they have directed towards the president.”
The Syrian insurrection has tested the limits of Turkish regional diplomatic power that has grown markedly under Erdogan’s stewardship. For years Ankara invested heavily in relations with Syria and Assad, calculating closer ties could foster both trade and reforms in its southern neighbour, as well as weaken its reliance on Iran, for centuries Turkey’s main regional rival.
“They thought that because of the personal relationship that had developed between Erdogan and Bashar, the Syrians would be a pushover,” said Philip Robins of Oxford University.
“There was a complete misunderstanding based on an assumption that they had manoeuvred the other side so that they would do their bidding, and that absolutely was not the case.”
Syrian protests escalated from March last year. Assad failed to heed ever more insistent telephone calls from Erdogan and visits from Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu appealing for reform. By August, Ankara had had enough.
Having seen the rapid revolution in Egypt and with the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi seemingly imminent, Turkey sharply turned against its erstwhile ally in Damascus.
“They wanted to position themselves on the right side of history, expecting the Syrian regime to fall in weeks as in Tunisia and Egypt,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Turkey now hosts Syria’s main opposition groups and shelters the rebel Free Syria Army on its side of the common frontier. On April 1, it will be the venue of a meeting of Western and Middle Eastern officials and groups involved with Syria.
Assad has shown himself to be impervious to verbal assault and resilient to increasingly violent protests and guerrilla attacks. He is also for now at least largely insulated from strong United Nations-backed action due to the vetoes of China and his backer Russia on the Security Council.
“Right now there is a disappointing situation for Ankara,” said Salem. “What they banked on didn’t happen. Their bluff and bluster was met by bluff and bluster from the Syrian side and now we are certainly in a bit of a stalemate.”
Without backing from the U.N., or at least the Arab League and NATO, Turkey is unwilling to go it alone in Syria. But with a 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria, more than 16,000 Syrian refugees on its soil and hundreds more arriving each day, it is not a problem from which Ankara can simply walk away.
Turkey has signalled a huge flood of refugees or massacres on its door-step would be red lines that would force it to act, but short of military intervention, there are few effective options available, analysts said.
Erdogan said last week setting up a “safe” or “buffer zone” along the border was one of the options under consideration, but that would mean troops going into Syria to seize and secure territory which the rebel Free Syrian Army has failed to do.
“We need to consider maybe to have a buffer zone inside Syrian territory, but without Syrian consent this may lead to some kind of military conflict ... and this may escalate the situation,” said Kamer Kasim of the International Strategic Research Organisation (USAK), Turkish think-tank.
Like it or not, Turkey finds itself centre stage of diplomatic efforts to dislodge Assad, and would be on the front line of any military intervention, whether an Arab peace force or arming the Free Syrian Army, both measures the Arab League could discuss when it holds a summit in Baghdad next week.
But there are very good reasons why Turkey should be wary of intervening in Syria, given its strategic backing by Turkey’s neighbour and regional power Iran, and the closeness to Iran of Ankara’s other Middle Eastern neighbour, Iraq.
“Turkey has got itself into a position where it has a major foreign policy issue with its three Middle Eastern neighbours,” said Robins. “This is really not clever, especially in a part of the world where power politics is still the name of the game.”
“If it were just Turkey versus Syria then the Turks if they were minded to could probably just pile in,” he said. “But when you factor in the presence of other regional powers ... and you also have Israel which is getting closer to Cyprus and Greece, and then of course you have the Russians to the north who are supporting Syria, it suddenly becomes much more complex.”
Some in Turkey see a Western attempt to push Ankara into taking the leading role, and a large part of the risk, in Syria.
Parliament speaker Cemil Cicek, from Erdogan’s AK Party, blamed what he called “Western cunning” for trying to push Turkey into action. “Everyone is on the sidelines as if they are watching a match and saying ‘let Turkey sort it out’.”
That at least was how many observers saw last week’s visit to Ankara of CIA Director David Petraeus.
“It seems Turkey has been left holding the baby,” said Ali Nihat Ozcan, a security analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey.
The Americans, he said, “are probably trying to encourage Turkey to get more involved. Turkey is having second thoughts.”
Turkey has not yet rowed back, but much of the rhetoric has been replaced by a determined attempt to forge more consensus on Syria, hosting a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Istanbul on April 1 to try keep it high on the international agenda.
There Turkey will do what it diplomatically does best, bringing together the West and the Middle East where it uniquely has a foot in both camps.
“I would have thought the thing to do is to get back in the pack as far as NATO and the Western alliance is concerned; you are not exposed in the way that Turkey has been,” said Robins.
“You can have your own perspective on what is happening. You are still deeply alarmed at the loss of life and devastation in Syria, but you can only really move in tandem with the alliance more generally and with the Americans in particular.”