Turkey is the only influential regional power which is truly capable of toppling the Syrian government, of besieging extremist groups in Syria, and of supporting the Iraqi government and protecting the Kurdistan region. Despite this, Ankara has so far refused to take any important initiatives to do so. As a result, the Assad regime has continued to wreak havoc and murder people for three consecutive years. Meanwhile, extremist groups continue to spread and the Kurdistan region remains unprotected.
So why does Ankara refuse to play a decisive role and leave the area open to others — is it afraid of military involvement?
Syria shares a border with Turkey and what happens there affects Turkey’s security more than it affects the security of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Iran. However, Turkey is more hesitant to act than these countries. Iran has sent members of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to fight alongside the Assad regime, and is providing it with money, weaponry and supplies. However, the Turkish government’s support has been limited and cautious, and it has only opened its border to fighters and provided them with limited political and military assistance.
Turkey has taken a political stance in support of the Syrian revolution but it has refrained from intervening with its massive military capability, thus leaving its neighbor open to meddling by regional and international powers, allowing them to interfere at the expense of Turkey’s interests and the Syrian people.
If the Turks had acted upon their frequent threats and helped topple the Assad regime, Ankara would have been the capital where future solutions are managed, instead of this chaos we see today. No country can argue with Turkey about its right to intervene since it is the largest country neighboring Syria and the closest to Syria’s Sunni majority and Alawite minority; this in addition to the historical and economic links between the two countries.
Turkey does not need a reason to intervene, and it would find massive international support and wide popularity in the Islamic world should it decide to act. The Syrian regime has acted against Turkey several times. It shelled Turkey’s territories, downed a Turkish jet, kidnapped Syrian activists from inside its borders, and killed Turkish citizens inside Syria. Is there a legal prohibition preventing Turkey from acting? The US responded to Damascus—which described the international coalition’s activities in its airspace as a violation of its sovereignty—by saying there was no longer a legitimate regime in Syria and that any country had the right to defend its citizens if the local authorities cannot or will not act. The coalition intervened after American and British hostages were killed. It considered these deaths enough of a justification to pursue armed groups without needing the approval of Syrian authorities or the UN Security Council.
Turkey has disappointed the millions of Syrians who have raised the Turkish flag since the beginning of the revolution in the hope that Ankara will save them. It has frustrated millions of angry Arabs who now seek French and British support after Turkish promises became meaningless.
Iran has exploited Turkey’s inaction and tarnished its image among Arabs. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian insulted Turkey, claiming that the Iranian government had warned Ankara against any military ground operations in Syria and against any acts that may lead to radical changes there.
What good is Turkey’s military power if it cannot save the Syrians, who have lost a quarter of a million lives? Why is it a member of the Western NATO alliance when it is incapable of resolving a regional dispute on its own borders? Why does it keep silent over Iran’s flagrant intervention in Syria, when it is the country’s neighbor? In the 1990s, Turkey intimidated the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad by moving its tanks toward the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. As a result, Assad rushed to hand over the wanted opposition figure Abdullah Öcalan. Now Ankara just settles for making verbal threats as thousands of Syrians and dozens of Turks continue to be killed.