The biggest influence in the outcome in Syria, if the Assad tyranny falls, is likely to be Turkey.
Turkey has a 910-kilometre border with Syria, and an estimated 11,000 Syrian refugees from the recent repression, including armed groups of the “Free Syrian Army”. It is also the biggest economic power in the region, with a GDP (2011) of $798 billion, way ahead of Saudi Arabia ($561 billion), Iran ($451 billion), Israel ($249 billion), Egypt ($231 billion), or Iraq ($108 billion).
Its 510,000-strong army is one of the big military powers in the region, though slightly smaller than Iran’s armed forces (523,000).
With its application to join the European Union blocked for the foreseeable future, the Turkish government seems to have turned to establishing itself as the interlocutor of the region, balancing one connection against another.
It has projected itself as the pivot both for secularists and for Sunni Islamists; kept links both with the USA and Israel, on one hand, and Iran on the other.
In September 2011 Turkish prime minister Erdogan toured the North African countries of the “Arab spring”. Despite the Islamist roots of his party, he pointedly distanced himself from local Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Ennahda in Tunisia.
“Turkey is a democratic, secular, and social state of law”, he declared, presenting it as a model. “A secular state takes equal distance to all religious groups, including Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists”. He added: “This is not secularism in the Anglo-Saxon or Western sense; a person is not secular, the state is secular”; but that did not satisfy the local Islamists.
In Iraq, Turkey has openly backed the opposition Iraqqiya party led by Iyad Allawi, which is also backed by the USA. Iraqqiya is heavily based on Sunni Arab votes, though Allawi is a secular Shia. Turkey has cultivated good and lucrative relations with the secular-Sunni rulers of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Turkey’s alliances in Iran put it in conflict with Iran, which has openly supported the ruling Shi’a Dawa party of Nuri al-Maliki. And Turkey has also maintain its long-standing ties with the USA.
In September 2011 Turkey finalised terms for the siting of a US-designed NATO radar system on its territory. US officials were jubilant: “This is probably the biggest strategic decision between the United States and Turkey in the past 15 or 20 years”. They explained that data from the radar system will be shared with Israel.
Turkey’s traditional close ties with Israel have been strained.
Recently (26 February) Turkey began banning Israeli flights carrying “dangerous materials” (with “dangerous” defined so that this includes most Israeli cargo planes) from using its airspace. Yet the ties have not been broken. Israel-Turkey trade has continued to increase (about $4 billion a year).
Turkey also, despite conflicts, keeps up its links with Iran. In February 2011 Turkey’s president Abdullah Gul led a large delegation of 135 government officials and 100 businessmen on a visit to Iran, and declared, jointly with Iranian president Ahmedinejad, that he expected Iranian-Turkish trade to rise soon to $30 billion a year (it is currently $10 billion). Turkish prime minister Erdogan will visit Iran next month (April 2012).
Turkey’s official statements on Syria have been guarded, limited to calls such as for access for humanitarian aid. Turkey’s regional policy indicates a policy in Syria of trying to build a broad coalition, including but not controlled by the (Sunni-based Islamist) Muslim Brotherhood.
Independence from the Turkish government and its regional ambitions will be vital for any working-class or radical-democratic force hoping to make headway in Syria amidst the revolt against the dictatorship.
But to present that revolt as just a catspaw of “imperialism” is false.