Prior to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mid-May visit to Washington, the expectation among many observers was that the Turkish leader would be coming to the White House to press a reluctant President Barack Obama to commit to supporting more forceful—that is, military—action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, Erdogan’s trip played out quite differently. Rather than Erdogan convincing Obama to change positions, it was the U.S. president who got the normally strong-willed Turkish prime minister to soften his tone and publicly support the Geneva II process, Washington’s effort to convene an international conference next month on solving the conflict in Syria, which Erdogan had previously dismissed.
Erdogan’s changed tone in Washington is an indication, though, of a wider recalibration of Turkey’s Syria policy. Faced with a Syrian regime that has proved to be unexpectedly resilient; an American administration that has shown little appetite for getting drawn into the crisis in Syria; and the growing potential for the violence to spill across Turkey’s own borders and impact domestic politics, Ankara has decided to moderate its stance on the Syrian conflict. After pushing for close to two years for a military solution to remove the Assad regime from power, Ankara’s new position brings it into greater harmony with Washington and also allows it to start focusing more on protecting itself from any potential domestic fallout that the violence in Syria might cause.
This shift in policy marks yet another turn in what has been a series of bad bets made by Ankara regarding Syria. Prior to the current strife in Syria, Ankara and Damascus, after decades of tense relations, were on the road toward becoming close allies, establishing a visa-free travel regime and, in 2009, holding a previously unimaginable joint three-day military exercise. In 2010, in yet another sign of deepening ties, Turkey announced the creation of an economic council that would work toward creating a free-trade zone between itself, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.