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Monsters, Courage and Politics: Erdogan's Conundrum

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It seems only yesterday that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad pledged to strengthen their economic ties and exchanged words of reassurance over fried egg in a swanky hotel in Bodrum. Now Erdogan is loudly shaking his fist at Damascus: he threatens to step-up cross-border attacks on loyalist outposts, provide even more assistance to the rebels, and launch a seismic land invasion. That the relationship between the former allies turned sour so quickly teaches policy analysts a valuable lesson: the only lasting Truth of politics is interests, not alliances.

Erdogan is a shrewd, mature politician, intimately acquainted with this and other tenets of international relations. With him as captain, Turkey re-emerged as a financial behemoth in the region and flexed its political muscle. Yet he failed to foresee the ultimate direction of his ship: a painful choice between Scylla and Charybdis, the two mythical sea monsters.

The choice is clear but difficult. On the one hand, Erdogan can undertake a humiliating retreat from his belligerent anti-Assad position. This decision would cut the Turkish death toll, put more pressure on the international community to act in the vacuum left behind by Ankara, and allow the nation to focus on dealing with its rebellious Kurdish minority. However, this would entail devastating consequences. Erdogan's high approval rating, based largely on his image as an uncompromising leader, would suffer in view of his forbearance. More importantly, Turkey serves as a counterweight to Assad's machine: its shipments of aid, money, expertise and weapons serve as the lifeblood of the opposition. A retreat to quiet disapproval would strengthen the Syrian regime's destructive mechanism and leave in its wake thousands of rebel communities at the mercy of a ruthless, power-hungry autocrat.

His other option is military action - a threat so often heard, it teeters on meaninglessness. Even discounting a full-scale ground invasion (always casualty-heavy), Turkish lives will be at peril. Assad's previous shelling repertoire is a testament to his willingness to retaliate beyond the border. For Erdogan, anything but a surgical military operation risks becoming unpopular with the electorate very quickly. With continued support from Assad's regional allies like Iran and implicit backing from Russia and China, such an operation seems highly unlikely, at least without NATO's help. An invasion would belie the peaceful image Turkey aims to project and therefore deprive the world of a rare model of a functional, peace-seeking moderate Muslim democracy. Recent opinion polls, which show that 76 percent of Turks oppose direct confrontation, also weigh against the military option for Erdogan, mindful as he is of the 2014 election. There is little doubt, however, that with Turkey's full military backing, Assad's collapse will become imminent and many civilian lives will be spared. Furthermore, a Turkish intervention can encourage other nations sympathetic to its cause (and these are many) to join forces in ending the bloodshed faster.

What brought him here?

Last year the region witnessed cross-border clashes which sprung from Erdogan's strategic decision to side with the Syrian opposition in late 2011. Whether he spotted an opportunity to step-up Turkish regional hegemony, boost his popularity in the Arab World or was spurred by genuine liberal idealism, the Prime Minister decided to provide material support to the Free Syrian Army, expecting Assad's demise to come forthwith. Here his arithmetic was off. Assad turned out to be more stubborn than expected.

This already put Erdogan in an uncomfortable position: his vehement anti-Assad rhetoric compared unfavorably to Turkey's militaristic restraint. Until October 2012, he could point at his dovish parliament and shrug his shoulders. But, when Turkish border towns were hit by one artillery shell too many, the parliament voted in favor of potential military intervention in Syria and handed Erdogan a carte blanche. The measure was lauded domestically for its success as a deterrent when the Syrian regime offered a rare apology for its recent attacks.

However, the carte blanche brought Erdogan to the fork at which he finds himself today. It means he now has both the responsibility and the opportunity to shape the future of the Middle East. To the international community it seems that with the exception of NATO intervention (which is not forthcoming), few defenses are available against Assad's violent machine - a horrible scourge that tears through the fabric of society just as surely as it destroys the bodies of those who wove it. Turkish intervention presents significant political and military risks and would not provide a panacea. But there is no doubt that it would be a bold move requiring a brave captain. Erdogan's support of the Arab Spring cast him as such; but can his credentials pass muster when he has much more to lose? For the sake of the silent victims of the Syrian uprising, I hope so.