THE BLOG

Turkey Should Wield Its Power in Syria

The striking characteristic of the democratic revolutions sweeping
the Arab world is how they all began domestically with grassroots
organization, but are now entering a darker, more violent phase where
international actors become critical.

The stakes are especially high in Syria, which sits at the center of
the Arab world and has been a source of much of the region's unrest for
decades. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has launched a brutal crackdown,
arresting protesters, invading cities and ''disappearing'' journalists.

The United States, European Union and others have condemned Assad --
to little effect. The missing international voice has been Syria's northern
neighbor, economic benefactor and the Middle East's newest regional power:
Turkey. The government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has
spent the last decade building up a friendly relationship with Damascus by
cultivating economic and political ties. Erdogan should to use some of that
goodwill to convince Assad to halt the attacks. Indeed, Turkey is uniquely
suited to make a difference.

Since 2002, Turkey has invested more in its rapprochement with Syria
than with any of its other neighbors, transforming its relationship from
one of military confrontation rooted in Cold War-era geopolitical animosity
to close economic partners today. The transformation has been a shining
example of Turkey's ''zero-problems'' policy toward its neighbors. Aleppo,
an entrepreneurial trading hub on the ancient silk road in Syria's north
and the country's second largest city, has been reconnected to Turkey's
southeastern province of Gaziantep through new border, rail, and road
connections. This has led to an economic boom with Turkish tourists and
investment pouring in. Until recently Aleppo seemed the model for the rest
of Syria.

Those economic ties can provide crucial leverage. Syria's economy is
in tatters and in need of reforms, regardless of the outcome of the
protests. Unless Syria wants to follow the path of North Korea as an
international pariah, which is nearly impossible because of its porous
borders and central geographic location as a regional crossroads, Damascus
has little choice but to look to Ankara for economic help. Stability -- or
in reality, status-quo maintenance -- has been the mantra of Ankara's
dealing with the Syrian crisis. But Ankara must incentivize the regime in
Damascus to make way for the meaningful reforms including economic
liberalization, representative elections and transparent application of
rules of law that the protesters are demanding.

By speaking frankly and firmly to Damascus about first calling off
the regime's security forces and developing a roadmap toward democracy in
Syria with clear economic incentives, Ankara stands the best chance of
being heard. As the crisis deepens, Erdogan may be the only world leader
who can save Assad from his regime's excesses. A speech like the one
Erdogan delivered recently against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, coupled
with sanctions that singled out Assad's regime, would deal a blow to
Damascus domestically and internationally that it could ill afford to
ignore.

The uprisings of the Arab Spring have proven a deep challenge to
Turkey, which has spent the last decade strengthening regional ties and
promoting itself as a beacon of Middle Eastern democracy. Now, Turkey sees
that regional credibility being put on the line with every suppressed
protest. At the start of the Arab revolutions, Erdogan tentatively placed
Turkey on the side of the pro-democracy movements starting with Tunisia and
then Egypt. Turkey was the first country to call for Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak to step down at a time when other leaders, including
President Obama, were hedging their bets. However, Turkey's role as an
''inspiration'' was put in jeopardy a few weeks later as a result of its
initial reluctance to criticize Khadafy.

Turkey's eventual flip-flop on Libya -- earlier this month Erdogan
called for Gaddafi to step down -- was an acknowledgement that sometimes,
hard power has to be used when autocrats refuse to be swayed by the kind of
soft power that democrats would have heeded. Echoing his earlier words
about Tunisia and Egypt, Erdogan warned, ''We don't want to live through
new Halabjas, new Hamas and Humus, new Bosnias.'' Erdogan's belated
scolding of Gaddafi will hopefully be understood as a warning to Assad,
too. ''Leaders must take responsibility, make sacrifice, choose the humane
and conscientious path with a view to changing the face, fate and image of
these lands,'' Erdogan told Gaddafi. Turkey should deliver the same message
to Syria.

Originally published at Boston.com

Joshua W. Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at the Crown Center for
Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University and a research fellow at the
Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School.