Can Turkey's 'Soft' Power Work in Syria?

Neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism are competing ideologies that have driven Turkey's foreign policy for many years. Neo-Ottomanism is focused on promoting 'soft power'- ensuring Turkey is well-placed diplomatically, politically and economically to take on a larger role in the Middle East and beyond. Kemalism seeks to preserve the secular legacy of Turkey's founder (Atatürk), and is focused on the Kurdish nationalist threat to Turkey's territorial integrity and regional security. Foreign relations have for years been conducted with the goal of minimizing this threat and preserving the secular foundation of the modern Turkish state.

As is the case with any other nation, Turkey's foreign policy is guided by the principle of national interest, with the ultimate aim of its policies being to bring benefits to Turkey, not to neighboring states. Prior to the arrival of the Arab Spring, Turkey's longer-term objective was to broaden its influence in the Middle East by promoting a 'zero-problems' foreign policy, not dissimilar to the European Union's 'Neighborhood Policy' of engagement with the 'near-abroad'. Until the onset of the Spring, Turkey's soft power engagement with the Middle East was reasonably successful.

Since that time, it has been as powerless to shape the course of events as virtually every other nation - and its zero problems foreign policy has become a foreign policy filled with problems, from the crisis in Syria to a resurgent Kurdish movement to ongoing tension with Israel. Ultimately, Turkey is now in the same boat as the majority of Western countries, and other countries in the region - it does not know how the evolving political change in the region will ultimately turn out, whether the ultimate successor regimes are likely to be pro-Western or Turkish, or what the impact on the regional power balance will be.

The surest test of whether Turkey's attempt to use soft power to successfully influence its relationships with its neighbors will now be what happens in Syria. It is one thing for Turkey to have attempted to influence the course of events in distant lands such as Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. It is quite another for it to be successful doing the same on its own doorstep, with an increasingly toxic mix of Islamists and jihadists competing for the spoils of what is likely to be President Assad's downfall next year.

When the AKP (Justice and Development) Party assumed power in Turkey in 2002, the central pillar of Foreign Minister Davutoğlu's foreign policy agenda was a rapprochement with Syria, following a decade of hostile bilateral relations that nearly brought the two nations to war in 1998. Prime Minister Erdoğan was initially cautious about walking away from the partnership with the Assad regime, especially as Turkey's construction firms and tourism industry reaped the benefits of cooperative bilateral relations.

To circumvent a scenario whereby Erdoğan would be compelled to make such a decision, his government attempted to mediate a diplomatic settlement to the violence in Syria. Ankara sought to pressure Damascus into implementing democratic reforms and incorporating elements of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood into the government. However Bashar Al-Assad viewed the rebellion as a foreign-backed existential threat to the Ba'athist regime, and Turkey's pressure was received poorly by members of Syria's ruling party. Erdoğan firmly believed that if any country could bring peace to Syria, it was Turkey, but once he accepted that his narrative was out of touch with reality, his frustration with Assad quickly turned into anger, and the tone of his policies toward Syria changed.

After Erdoğan won a resounding parliamentary victory in June 2011, he and Davutoğlu pursued a bolder position vis-à-vis Syria. During that summer and fall, the Turkish Prime Minister's rhetoric turned increasingly inflammatory, labeling the Syrian regime as "brutish and inhuman", and comparing Assad to Hitler. The continuation of carnage during Ramadan of 2011 only pushed the two states further apart, and has today culminated in the deployment of NATO anti-missile batteries on Turkey's border with Syria.

Despite Ankara's commitment to provide the Free Syrian Army with financial, intelligence and logistical support, and despite hosting the Syrian National Council in Istanbul, Bashar Al-Assad remains in Damascus. As the Syrian military continues to retain control over the majority of Syrian territory, the Assad regime for now remains in control. Thus, 21 months into the Syrian uprising, the limits of Turkey's capacity to influence the course of events inside Syria have been demonstrated.

If the Syrian crisis leads to the establishment of a semi-autonomous Kurdish state in northern Syria, whereby the Kurdistan Workers' Party acquires a safe haven from where it may launch attacks against Turkey's armed forces, the ongoing turmoil in southeastern Turkey could greatly expand. If a desperate Assad wages a chemical attack in Aleppo - prompting a NATO military operation in Syria - Turkey could find itself at war with forces supported by the countries Turkey depends on for natural gas imports - Russia and Iran. Furthermore, if radical Salafist factions (including Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Ahrar Al-Sham Brigades or the Suqur Al-Sham Division) were to acquire power within Syria, new security dilemmas will arise for all states in the region.

In sum, the Syrian crisis has pushed Turkey away from its idealistic "zero problems with neighbors" approach to foreign policy and more toward a pro-democracy, moderate, Sunni Islamist foreign policy. While Turkey's government is subject to criticism for curtailing certain civil liberties, it is unquestionably the Middle East's most democratic Muslim-majority state. In addition, Turkey has earned respect on the Arab Street as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. The AKP's efforts to promote a more Islamist political agenda have also been well received among some of Syria's conservative Sunnis, who resent the secular Alawite-led Ba'athist regime.

For those devout Syrian Muslims who dream of a new country where the mosque plays a greater role in governance, the AKP therefore offers a path for their future. Given the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's stated admiration of the Turkish model, Erdoğan's high approval ratings on the Arab Street, and the commercial opportunities that greater ties with Turkey could bring to a post-Assad Syria, it is understandable why Ankara has placed its bets on the Assad regime collapsing and a pro-AKP Islamist order replacing it. The proof will of course be in the pudding, however, and the truth is, no one knows what is going to happen next, or what the end game will bring to Syria. Turkey is betting that Assad will fall, and it wants to be first in line to influence the successor government. There's nothing 'soft' about that approach to foreign policy, nor is it likely to result in zero problems going forward. It may all backfire, depending on who takes control in Damascus.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management firm based in Connecticut (USA), and author of the book "Managing Country Risk". Giorgio Cafiero is a research analyst with CRS.