02/13/2012 11:27 am ET | Updated Feb 13, 2012

Syria Crisis: Turkey Inches, Somewhat Reluctantly, To The Forefront

WASHINGTON -- When Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, arrived in Washington late last week, he came with a clear and direct message about the deteriorating situation in Syria.

"We have to focus on how to make humanitarian access possible for the Syrian people," he said at one of a series of public events and private meetings with journalists he held on Friday. "What we need today is to send a strong message to the Syrian people that they are not alone, to the Syrian regime that they cannot use these measures forever, to international community that we have solidarity with the Syrian people."

As a major Middle Eastern power that shares its longest -- and now increasingly porous -- border with Syria, Turkey has the most to lose from seeing the Syrian crisis unfold unabated. There are already thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of them military defectors, and willingly or not, Turkey has become a base for the nascent Free Syrian Army.

On Monday, Davutoglu will meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, where he is expected to discuss possible next steps in mitigating the Syrian crisis. With a possible United Nations resolution blocked by Russia and China, Clinton and others have said they hope that some sort of international body could be formed to expedite assistance to the Syrian opposition.

Most analysts expect that the Americans will seek to put the Turks at the forefront, at least rhetorically, of any plans that emerge in the coming days, a process that has already seen Vice President Joe Biden laud Turkey for being "a real leader" on the issue.

But, as Davutoglu indicated in his appearances last week, any course of action -- especially one that might lead to increased regional strife or even military intervention -- comes with a strong dose of discomfort or even disappointment.

After all, Turkey has long prided itself on being a regional peacemaker and a beneficent bridge between East and West. Just last year, it described its regional foreign policy as "zero problems with neighbors" -- a project that included a determined, and briefly flourishing, effort to open trade and diplomatic relations with the Assad regime.

Much of that is now in tatters as the region seems increasingly on the verge of division along old Cold War lines and sectarian ones -- Syria's allies in Iran, Lebanon and Iraq are Shia, while Turkey and the Arab League leaders are Sunni. Davutoglu said on Friday that Turkey has repeatedly sought to avoid such a fragmentation, but analysts say that, by taking stronger actions against Assad's regime, the country risks firmly implanting itself on one side of the growing divide.

"I think ambivalence is the right way to put it," said Bulent Aliriza, the director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, of Turkey's reluctant entrance into the Syria fray. "Even if, subjectively, Turkey rejects that split and doesn't want to be defined as the Sunni part of a Western-led conflict, nonetheless, objectively, it is in danger of being seen as such by the Shia bloc."

In his meeting with reporters on Friday, Davutoglu showed signs of diverging with some of outsiders' most ambitious plans for Syria. He shrugged off questions about arming the opposition, and reiterated that Turkey was not yet prepared to support a role for NATO.

"There should not be something like the Libyan case," he said, referring to last year's full-scale military intervention in which Western air power was utilized to end the reign of Muammar Gaddafi. "We don't want anything based on a military presence or a clash," he added.

And in one important break from the stated goals of the Americans, Davutoglu even signaled that Turkey might be satisfied with a resolution to the crisis that does not involve the complete dismantling of the Assad regime, even though Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already called for the president to step down.

"We will have a strategy for the future: a new Syria, a free Syria," Davutoglu said. "This is our strategic objective. We are not there to talk about regime change, but that the Syrian people should decide for themselves, not Bashar Assad on his own."

Indeed, people close to Davutoglu say that even as he prepared to propose a new international body to take steps in Syria, he agonized over the exact language used to describe it -- "friends" or a "coalition" or a "contact group" each bringing with it different levels of implied action or force.

"I think the Turks are petrified about this turning into something much bigger than it already is," said Joshua Walker, a Turkey expert at the German Marshall Fund. "They're worried that Syria is the igniting flame for something growing along sectarian lines. If Syria goes down the same path, this can ignite nasty things in Lebanon, nasty things in Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia -- it's a regional problem that makes it so dangerous for Turkey."

Walker also pointed out that Turkey faces domestic limitations to its role in Syria as well, because much of the country would be opposed to wider intervention.

"Turkey is in this very weird situation where Davutoglu has a political incentive to take the lead on Syria, but among the general public there is a very isolationist impulse," he said. "Davutoglu is trying to find a way where he can do something, but he finds himself in a corner because the population won't let Turkey go too far. The idea of having a staging area for troops in Turkey? That's just not going to happen."

Asked on Friday by The Huffington Post if Turkey was worried that some actions against Assad might serve to inflame regional tensions, Davutoglu demurred.

"In this type of crisis situation, in order to manage the crisis, it's better not to say what cannot be done," he said. "It's important to focus on what can be done, in this moment."

But he also acknowledged at another point that he was "afraid of sectarian war" breaking out -- both within Syria and across the region. And he added that should the crisis escalate, by any means, one outcome is certain for Turkey: "We will pay the price."