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Syria Strains Turkey's 'No Problems' Foreign Policy

Syrian men carry bread loaves during a protest against President Bashar Assad's regime in the coastal town of Banias on Tuesday. The Syrian government is facing international condemnation for its bloody crackdown on protesters.
Syrian men carry bread loaves during a protest against President Bashar Assad's regime in the coastal town of Banias on Tuesday. The Syrian government is facing international condemnation for its bloody crackdown on protesters.

The brutal government crackdown on protesters in Syria has drawn criticism, sanctions and the threat of more sanctions from the U.S., the U.N. and the EU. But some of the toughest talk in recent days has come from one of Syria's key allies: Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar Assad have long been close. But that might be coming to an end.

On a Turkish TV news channel, Erdogan said he was beginning to have doubts that Assad will keep his promises to release political prisoners and enact serious government reforms.

Analysts in the region say they were the harshest words yet from a man who has been described as not just a good ally of Assad, but also a good friend.

Cengiz Candar, a Turkish writer and former government adviser, traveled recently to Syria, Iraq and Iran with Turkey's top leaders.

"They all have a very intimate and warm relation with the person of Bashar Assad and his family," Candar says.

Candar says these relations developed as the two countries formed stronger political and economic ties. Turks and Syrians no longer need visas to travel to each other's country, and the two do an enormous amount of trade.

It's a Turkish foreign-policy strategy that some are calling a new Ottomanism — one that Candar says imagines North Africa, the Middle East and Turkey as connected and powerful as they were during the Ottoman empire.

The "region was one unit, in terms of civilization, a cultural space, also economic and commercial transaction," he says.

The new version of this, he says, would have open, democratic and moderate Islamic governments, with Turkey as the dominant power.

A 'Post-Assad' World?

To achieve this, Turkey, for some time, has attempted to maintain a so-called "no-problems" approach to its neighbors. But that's proving difficult with Syria and Libya.

Only this week, Erdogan called on the Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to step down, after weeks of pursuing a diplomatic end to the crisis in the North African country.

On the surface, Turkey is still pursuing that kind of goal with Syria. Publicly, Turkey says it will continue to work with Assad to implement reforms that will make his regime more inclusive and democratic.

"Maybe it's too early to talk about a post-Assad period," says Inan Ozyildiz, Turkey's ambassador to Lebanon. "We still count on this existing regime, which is expected to start seriously thinking about a new strategy to address the demands of the Syrian population."

Turkey had sent delegations to Syria to advise on the reform process, but those visits have reportedly stopped.

Behind the scenes, Syrians are reportedly furious that the Turks aren't more supportive, and that the Turks actually are preparing for a post-Assad world.

Turkey has hosted some of Syria's anti-government figures and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned inside Syria.

Candar says privately that the Turkish leadership is optimistic about a new, open, democratic Syria, however messy that transition might be.

"So if there would be a regime change in Syria, it would be even better," he says.

So the question that remains is, will this new stance by Turkey have any influence on Syria? Or is Syria's last remaining friend in the region, Iran, poised to hold the most sway? After all, Iran's clerical regime successfully launched its own crackdown against anti-government protesters in 2009 and remains in power today. And it, too, has a vision of an interconnected region with itself at the helm.

Candar says the Turks and their American and European allies are acutely aware of this Iranian alternative. That's why they believe it's important to continue engaging with Assad, for now.

"Actually, Syria is also another battle ground between Turkey and Iran — an undeclared one," he says.

But if Turkey stops the engagement with Assad, that would open the way for the Iranians — an option neither the Turks nor their Western allies can accept.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.