The veto by Russia and China in February of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down has stalled efforts by the U.S., its European allies and the Arab League to halt the bloody crackdown in Syria through U.N. action. Though the U.S. is currently drafting a new U.N. resolution, calls by some observers to arm the Syrian resistance have now been echoed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf Cooperation Council states eager to see the pro-Iranian Assad regime replaced by a Sunni-dominated government. Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy joined the ranks of those advocating for the creation of “humanitarian corridors” within or along Syria’s borders. However, to have any chance of success, any vigorous military intervention in Syria would require the backing of key local actors, particularly Turkey, Syria’s powerful democratic neighbor. While Turkey has been openly critical of Assad’s regime since the beginning of the uprising and has allowed Syrian opposition leaders to take refuge in Turkey, Ankara has important reasons to be reluctant to provide active material and military support to anything other than a broad-based, U.N.-sanctioned anti-Assad coalition.
Under the helm of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), especially its visionary foreign minister, Ahmed Davutoglu, Turkish foreign policy has undergone a significant transformation in the past 10 years. As international trade and foreign investment have become more important to the rapidly growing Turkish economy in recent years, the AKP government has given top priority to economic and trade interests in its conduct of foreign policy. And it is fear of jeopardizing these substantial economic interests that make Turkey reluctant to play a leading role in a military initiative against the Syrian government backed only by NATO and the Arab League.
The reason is simple enough: The Assad regime’s three key international backers, Russia, China and Iran, are among Turkey’s largest trade and investment partners. Any active Turkish involvement in a military intervention targeting Assad would pose a substantial risk to Turkey’s relations with these three countries, at potentially great cost for the Turkish economy. Russia and Iran are Turkey’s top providers of natural gas: In 2009, Russia accounted for 54 percent of Turkey’s natural gas imports, while Iran was second with 14 percent. Furthermore, Iranian gas exports to Turkey increased by 50 percent in 2010, making Turkey even more dependent on Iran for gas.