IN THE early hours of April 9th a group of Syrian civilians fled to the Turkish border as clashes between insurgents from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian government forces raged. Two Syrians died and several others, including two Turks, were wounded when Syrian troops fired on the civilians’ destination, a refugee camp located in the Turkish province of Kilis.
The incident has unleashed much speculation that Turkey will at last act on its many veiled threats to move against Syria.
For several months the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been muttering about taking unspecified measures against Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, once a friend and ally. Since last summer Turkey has hosted FSA leaders on its soil amid claims that it is (modestly) arming the rebels. Officials deny this but acknowledge that regime change in Syria is a priority. Only America’s reluctance to become entangled in a fresh conflict stands in the way of some form of direct Turkish intervention. For how long?
Until recently the question would have been unthinkable. Turkey’s foreign policy has long been guided by Ataturk’s dictum “peace at home, peace in the world.” Only last year Mr Erdogan was railing against “imperialist designs” in Libya. NATO (of which Turkey has been a member since 1952) had “no business there” he said, before belatedly joining its operations. Even then Turkish forces stayed out of combat.
Over the past decade, under Mr Erdogan’s government, Turkey embarked on an activist foreign policy, courting Iran and long-forgotten Arab neighbours as the European Union cooled on Turkey’s aspirations to join. With one foot in the West and the other in the Middle East, Turkey was able to mediate between Lebanon’s rival factions, between Iraq’s Shias and Sunnis, and between Israel and Syria (until Israel’s 2009 assault against Gaza). “It was this ability to talk to all sides that made Turkey an effective player,” says Nikolaos van Dam, a former Dutch ambassador to Turkey. But “now it has chosen sides.”
This shift could have far-reaching consequences. What lies behind it? When unrest erupted in Syria last spring, Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, spent hours pleading with Mr Assad to stop the violence and begin reforms. Yet the slaughter went on and Syrian refugees poured into Turkey—some 25,000 at the last count.
By August Mr Erdogan had executed a 180-degree turn, declaring that Mr Assad would “end up like Qaddafi”. Turkey’s Western friends are delighted that Mr Erdogan has dumped Mr Assad. Yet some fail to understand why Turkey did not first seek to continue the role of mediator in Syria.
One explanation is simply that Turkey, like so many, believed that Mr Assad’s end was nigh. A more worrying possibility is hubris. Increasingly authoritarian and rarely challenged by his circle of sycophants, Mr Erdogan is used to getting his own way. Mr Assad dared to defy him. Mr Erdogan’s party has “extraordinary neo-Ottoman ambitions”, wrote Timothy Garton Ash, a British historian, in a Turkish daily. But it “should be careful not to overestimate its possibilities”.