One of the keys to President Obama’s ill-fated attempt to engage the Islamic world has been the effort to convince Syria to abandon its alliance with Iran and to join the West. But like his vaunted outreach to Iran, this too fell flat — though some in the administration continued to try getting Israel to pay for this initiative with concessions on the Golan Heights and the standoff with Hezbollah, an ally of both Iran and Syria, along the border with Lebanon. But the final nail in the coffin of the Syria gambit appears to have come not from Israeli intransigence but rather from the intervention of a country that once feared the Syrians: Turkey.
Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, Stephen Starr reports that Turkey has become “Syria’s new best friend.” Though not so long ago the Turks looked to cultivate an alliance with Israel as a counter-balance to the threat they perceived from the Assad regime, they have now embarked on their own outreach campaign to Damascus. Trade between the two countries has grown from a trickle to a flood. More importantly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to become an apologist and diplomatic partner for Iran and to attempt to become the leader of the Islamic world’s anti-Israel diplomatic front has the potential to change the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean. By sponsoring the Gaza flotilla provocation and then engaging in what even Starr concedes was a “disproportionate response” to Israel’s efforts to maintain the blockade on the Hamas regime, Turkey has “improved Syria’s political clout significantly.”
Obama’s attempt to woo the Syrians away from Iran was always doomed. While willing to pocket lucrative bribes from the West in the form of aid and development projects, the Assad family regime has no real interest in the welfare of the Syrian people or in better relations with the West. As any narrowly based dictatorships, the Assads know that a more open and prosperous society and peace with Israel do not serve their purposes of perpetuating their vise-like grip on their country. Iran and Hezbollah were always going to be the natural allies of Damascus. The United States might have been able to tell the Syrians that they could get them the Golan Heights back if they just made peace with Israel and deigned to accept Western largess in return. Contrary to how Starr interprets Syria’s past flirting — sponsored by Turkey — with negotiations with Israel, Bashar al-Assad was not interested in peace even if it brought him the Golan.
But edging away from its military alliance with Israel and bidding to revive the Ottoman Empire’s pose as the leader of the Islamic world, NATO member Turkey is a far better fit for being a partner with Syria than with the United States. Indeed, as Starr writes, with Turkey behind it, Assad can now afford to ignore Obama’s entreaties altogether. The result not only deepens Israel’s isolation but also exposes the utter failure of one of the administration’s foreign policy goals. The president imagined that, by distancing the United States from Israel and trying to “engage” the Arab “street” and Iran’s dictators, he could inaugurate a new era of American influence in the Middle East. But it appears as though all he has done is to set the stage for a dangerous turn for the worse in the region.