Can Turkey Impact Possible Transition In Syria?

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The declaration by Turkey's president that Ankara has "lost all confidence" in the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad signals further isolation for the embattled regime in Damascus. International calls for stepped-up sanctions are growing, despite concerns about whether the regime or the Syrian public will suffer most. Analysts say despite Ankara's escalating rhetoric, Turkey remains in an important position to provide incentives for a political transition in Syria.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: Because of the crackdown, the Syrian government has lost most of its traditional friends. That leaves only Iran as a dependable ally. None of the countries that has broken with Damascus is more important than Turkey, which says it has lost confidence in the regime.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul that Turkey is learning to balance its traditional economic interests with concern for human and civil rights.

PETER KENYON: Turkey tends to favor the carrot over the stick when dealing with neighbors such as Syria. Turkish leaders were relentless in their wooing of the Assad regime, building up extensive economic ties between northern Syria and southern Turkey. But after being slow to criticize abuses by the Libyan regime earlier this year, Ankara shifted its approach to Damascus, joining the U.S. and Europe in condemning the brutal crackdowns on Syrian demonstrators.

After Turkey's latest effort to end the violence foundered, President Abdullah Gul was blunt in saying that Assad risked the same fate as the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Gul, heard here through an interpreter, made it clear that Ankara no longer believed Assad's promises to enact reforms.

President ABDULLAH GUL: (Through Translator) We have reached a point where anything would be too little too late. Frankly, I would like to say that we have lost our confidence. There is no place for totalitarian regimes and one-party system. Clearly, these will change either by force or by political initiative taken by leaders of these states.

KENYON: And in Istanbul cafe, analyst and author Mustafa Akyol says Turkey has struggled to balance its economic interests in Syria with its desire to be an important Middle East player. He says, for while, Turkish officials held out hope that they could convince the Syrian regime to abandon its single party political system, as Turkey had done in 1950.

MUSTAFA AKYOL: But I think they have come to the end of their hopes. So my expectation is that Turkey will grow more and more critical. It will denounce Syrian abuses more and more. On the other hand, in the Turkish society - although there is concern for Syrian lives - there is also an unwillingness to support another operation against a neighboring country, like Iraq.

KENYON: Turkish reluctance to join in international military interventions in the region has bolstered its standing among Arab states. But in the case of Syria, so far, Arab and Western leaders have also shied away from the military option, leaving sanctions as the main weapon against the Assad regime. The European Union is moving toward new sanctions targeting Syria's lucrative oil and gas sector. The EU is expected to set a deadline of mid-November for companies with existing contracts to import Syrian oil to comply with an embargo.

Sanctions, however, are notoriously blunt instruments that sometimes punish ordinary citizens more than those in power. In a recent opinion piece, the International Crisis Group's Syria expert, Peter Harling, warned countries to beware of far-reaching economic sanctions, as tempting as they may be for leaders with few other viable options.

Harling argued that if and when sanctions are pursued, they must be accompanied by clear indications of when and under what conditions they'll be lifted, and by the promise of economic aid should a political transition take place. As a major economic partner to Syria, Turkey would be in position to be part of such an effort.

Analyst Mustafa Akyol says while Turkey hates sanctions in its neighborhood, because Turkish businessmen wind up getting punished as well, Ankara may go along with Syrian sanctions if they're presented properly.

AKYOL: If there is an international carrots and stick policy that will work in Damascus, Turkey would be an important supporter of that because Turkey is the neighbor that matters most economically for the Syrian regime.

KENYON: But so far, neither Turkey nor anyone else has come up with an approach that seems likely to persuade the embattled regime in Damascus to change its tactic of maintaining power by the use of force.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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