Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may be leading the international call for action against the continued bloodshed in Syria, but Turkey is more interested in maintaining its domestic status quo than playing the hero. With refugees pouring in by the day and Syrian troops firing across the tense border at the Kilis refugee camp, Turkey is desperately avoiding taking matters into its own hands – a pragmatic and unusually reserved move given its premier's history of theatrics in other regional disputes. Turkish engagement in Syria would not only represent a significant point in the popular revolution against Bashar al-Assad, it would also terminate the AKP's "zero problems" formula, place Turkey in direct confrontation with Iran, and draw additional parties into the conflict.
|Erdoğan's trip to China was all about Syria|
For the Turkish prime minister, who has been known to take political relationships personally, there is no better time than the present to employ restraint. After months of negotiating Syrian-Israeli peace talks, Erdoğan responded with rage when Israel failed to notify him about Operation Cast Lead. Although he has yet to respond to Syrian atrocities as colorfully as he did towards Israel at the World Economic Forum in 2009, Assad was once considered "a good friend" to Turkey, and there undoubtably lies a sense of betrayal, particularly regarding the Kurds.
According to Gönül Tol in Foreign Policy, "the Assad regime has granted several concessions to the PKK since Ankara cut ties", actions that threaten Turkish stability, and a decade's worth of largely positive momentum for its Kurdish population. For two decades, Bashar al-Assad's father permitted the PKK to operate freely out of Northern Syria. Only in 1998, under intense pressure, did Syria cut off support to the PKK, an act that swiftly resulted in the capture of the organization's founder, Abdullah Öcalan. In the absence of strong Kurdish leadership, Erdoğan & co. developed a new approach that gradually improved social and economic conditions in the majority Kurdish southeast. Despite mixed reviews, the AKP government has done more to improve the rights of Kurds than ever before in Turkish history. Ending Syria's civil war would foil what Hurriyet's Nuray Mert identifies as the birth of a Kurdish voice in a "new democratic Syria", and the PKK's ability to re-escalate its violent campaign against Turkey.
Despite Turkey's dominant military force, it continues to wait for international consensus. "Putting Turkish boots on the ground", argues Soner Cagaptay, would entangle Turkey without a serviceable exit strategy, consequently spoiling the goodwill it has cultivated thus far amongst many Sunnis in Syria, as well as others actors in the region.
Domestically, entering the conflict in Syria would likely reverse the three defining characteristics of the AKP governments since 2002: economic growth, reduction of military influence in politics, and increased electoral success. Erdoğan's legacy hinges on his ability to maintain the AKP's longevity – at least until the 2014 elections – and navigate the Syrian civil war's diplomatic challenge. As long as there is a choice, he will avoid the military route that would most certainly spell his doom.
The instability brought on by civil war is infectious, but few in the West should wish such a fate befall Turkey as preparations for a protracted confrontation with Iran are being finalized. Despite his occasional outbursts, Erdoğan is a rare source of constancy in the rapidly changing Middle East, and the AKP's conservative democratic values were cited as a model by many in the Arab Spring, including Tunisia's ruling Ennahda Party. For Turkey to achieve its mission impossible: maintaining stability while seeing to an end of violence in Syria, an international coalition must be formed, therein by preventing Turkey from independently entering the morass of civil war . Otherwise, the West is likely to lose an ally as the region continues to smolder.