When unable to tackle seemingly insurmountable matters, I often sat by the statue of Reinhold Niebuhr, father of all realists, in a Chicago suburb when I was a teenager, thinking how the great theologian would address the thorny issues occupying my mind. Years passed, with the Middle East in turmoil, Niebuhr has again something to offer to fix the region plagued with violence.
At a time when many are tossing back and forth the question of whether we should focus more on national interests instead of confronting challenges others face, the right answer probably somewhere in the middle. True, Niebuhr warned us against focusing too narrowly on national imperative, but he also said that "moralists who engaged in foreign policy making were more likely to be destructive of a nation's ideals than were cynical realists."
His timeless warning is more relevant to Turkey today than ever since idealist Enver Pasha, Turkey's defense minister a century ago, took Turkey into the World War I. That war ended with Turkey under foreign boots.
Today, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his idealist Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu are drafting a plan to lead Turkey into uncharted waters in Syria. Unable to see its limits, the Turkish government is determined to take this country down the same slippery slope. What Turkish leaders are only capable of is to deliver hallow speeches where the gap between talk and walk significantly consumes Turkey's hard-won credibility. Turkish public is deeply paralyzed and was forced into deafening silence. No one can speak up against Ankara's wrong direction.
With a coalition determined to root out the self-proclaimed Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, Turkey sees an opportunity in the ongoing war to bury the Syrian regime too. In the current chaos and mayhem in Syria, Erdoğan's government is by no means guilt-free. Encouraging rebels to fight the Syrian regime, escalating the civil war and sending arms and money into Syria with lack of care who gets what caused one of the greatest human tragedies in the modern history.
Ankara has already bungled its first attempt to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Erdoğan's chief nemesis. Turkey's irresponsible policies to oust Assad have reaped a terrible harvest, bringing more violence and bloodshed to its southern neighbor. And then radical Islamists blew in like a deadly wind, overrunning much of northern Syria and Iraq.
Much of the Western and Arab world are now united against the ISIL, with Turkey on board yet with ill-defined role. Ankara's participation in the anti-ISIL coalition is based on an anticipation that it can take the fight against Assad. Turkish government arrogates to itself the role of meting out justice in Syria by directly aiming at the Syrian regime. Erdoğan made it clear that Ankara won't join the coalition unless buffer zone is established, no-fly zone over Syria imposed and rebels are trained and equipped with modern arms. Erdoğan has spent one third of his 12-year-rule to finish Assad. He won't stop trying even if it is a sure path to a room full of trouble.
Erdoğan believes that Assad's only strength is his air power. Without no-fly zone over Syria, Erdoğan estimates, trained and equipped rebels won't be successful. He is eager to arm and train rebels in an area 3 miles within the Syrian territory, a possible buffer zone jointly created by Turkey and allies, that would also include tomb of Süleyman Şah, grandfather of Ottoman Sultan who found the grand empire.
An attack on the tomb, casus belli for Turkey, would be Erdoğan's golden opportunity to establish the buffer zone within Syria. Once the Western allies okay the no-fly zone -- and they are yet to reject the idea -- nothing will stop Erdoğan from dragging Turkey into the Syrian quagmire. Bruised by embarrassing corruption scandal at home, possible military adventure in Syria would help Erdoğan cover his government's dirty laundry.
Turkish intellectuals should have been engaged in a heated debate on whether it is worth to expend blood and treasure in Syria. Most of them, sadly, are silenced through either a carrot or a stick. The future of Turkey as a democratic and prosperous nation now hinges on Ankara's decision on Syria. Fighting in a complicated country without a clear-cut strategy may only mean extending the ongoing vicious cycle of violence.