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Kamel: Turkey Needs to Realign Its Syria Policy

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By Ayham Kamel, Eurasia Group

There is little more that Turkey can do to move the needle.

More than a year and half into the uprising, Syrian president Bashar al Assad continues to reign over Damascus and his army remains the single most formidable force in the country. Support for the rebels from the Middle East's Sunni Triangle -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey -- has failed to bring about regime change. And last week's border clashes between the Turkish and Syrian militaries turned Ankara's fear of contagion from the Syrian conflict into reality, highlighting why Turkey needs to rethink its approach.

Further efforts to arm rebels and to persuade Western powers to intervene militarily will probably not succeed; Turkey needs to be more cautious and protect its security and economy. Tension across the border and the prospect of broader Syrian support for Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) attacks can undermine Turkey's vibrant economy.

An Unsustainable Approach

Turkey's current approach of supporting Syrian rebels is unsustainable. The Syrian National Council (SNC) — a coalition of Syrian opposition groups based in Istanbul — has proved to be a fiasco, unable to reach minimal compromises for the sake of unity. Similarly, Syrian rebel groups that initially proved to be a strong force against the regime failed to develop themselves into a national army. Turkish policy makers dedicated significant resources to boost the fighting and intelligence capacity of these groups, but the rebels soon squandered their credibility; units never coalesced around a united leadership and military structure; regional interests and personal ambitions prevented effective coordination of attacks; and global jihadist elements were allowed to operate alongside many units, especially in Aleppo and Idlib.

For all these reasons, rebel groups are not likely to receive heavy arms from any state. The U.S. is increasingly concerned with the presence of jihadis and will probably not sanction any transfer of anti-aircraft missiles. A repeat of Afghanistan's Stinger buy-back program is the last thing Washington wants to worry about.

International intervention is also not on the way and Ankara's effort to pass on the burden of intervention to the international community or its NATO allies will not work.  While a humanitarian crisis in Syria is undesirable, there are no tangible interests for the West to justify such a step. The U.S. and key European powers are not interested in a costly and complicated operation that would not be welcomed by their domestic constituencies.

Decision Time

Ankara is at a crossroads. It can decide to broaden its support for Syrian rebels, but the security environment on its southern border will not improve. Rebel groups will still be divided, and most will align with their financiers' interests (Saudi Arabia and Qatar), leaving Turkey on the losing side of the equation. But even when, or perhaps even if, rebels oust Assad, stability is unlikely to return to Syria. Different commanders will control their respective regions and will not act as units of a national army.  Syria might even become a failed state, a scenario that will prove to be a nightmare for Turkey.

Instead, Ankara should focus on containing spillover from Syria to safeguard the key success of its Justice and Development Party: its robust and effective economic growth model. The Syrian crisis will not cripple the Turkish economy but it has the potential to seriously undermine it.

Cross-border attacks between the Syrian and Turkish militaries will irk both local and international investors who could potentially put their projects on hold until better security conditions emerge. While, Western Turkey is much less vulnerable, other projects in the south would carry higher risk. In this environment, Ankara must strive to contain future escalation and exercise self restraint. Reopening communication channels with the Syrian military is a painful option, but as cross border attacks reoccur, doing so may help prevent a dangerous miscalculation by both sides.

Likewise, potential Syrian support for PKK activists could be damaging. For the past decade PKK attacks in Turkey, though problematic, failed to deter investors from Turkey's attractive market.  This situation could potentially change if Assad decides to open up his weapons depot to Kurdish separatists in response to a transfer of heavy arms to insurgents. Energy projects including pipeline infrastructure would be especially exposed if the PKK acquires more advanced arms. Turkey should probably err on the side of caution and restructure the process of arms transfers to Syrian rebels. This would both minimize the risks of a Syrian backlash and expand Ankara's leverage vis a vis Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Finally, military mobilization and any skirmishes along the border carry a hefty price tag. The $200 million Turkey has spent on Syrian refugees is merely a small part of the forecasted $18.5 billion budget deficit for 2012. However, a larger refugee flow and the costs of increasing military readiness along the border could potentially become more problematic. With no end in sight for the Syrian conflict, Turkey is best advised to distance itself from the Syrian swamp.

Ayham Kamel is a Middle East Analyst at Eurasia Group