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Can Erdogan Save Syria?

SyriaAs Syria morphs into Libya, two very different scenarios are beginning to appear on the distant horizon, with profoundly distinct implications for Mideast stability. One scenario—the Israeli Expansion Scenario--is that of a U.S.-Israeli intervention “in the name of humanity” that would invade, eliminate the barbaric Assad regime, and effectively colonize Syria in the interests of Israel. The other—the Turkish Tolerance Scenario--is a Turkish initiative, also to eliminate the barbaric Assad regime in the name of humanity, conceivably diplomatic but more likely also a military invasion, that would oversee the creation of a moderate Syrian popular regime.

The Israeli Expansion Scenario would antagonize the whole region, threaten to stop the Arab Spring in its tracks, infuriate hardliners in Tehran, embolden hard-liners in Tel Aviv, excite hardliners in Riyadh.  The Turkish Tolerance Scenario would offer Syrians neutral ground for working out a national consensus, catch both Iran and Israel off-guard but simultaneously mitigate the fears and ambitions of each, slam the door in the face of Salafi jihadists looking for their next opportunity, and turbo-charge the Arab Spring with a breathtaking victory for moderate, democratizing modernization with a Muslim flavor.

Almost no one would like an effective Israeli takeover of Syria under a 1970’s Lebanon-style proxy regime. A frontal invasion by the IDF is perhaps the least likely way such a scenario would develop, but a more subtle Israeli role would cause nearly as much damage as long as Israel were perceived regionally as expanding its area of influence at Syrian expense. Iranians would rightly fear the construction of offensive Israeli air bases near Iranian territory, committing the normally cautious Iranian national security elite to emergency countermeasures. Muslim hardliners from the IRGC to al Qua’ida would have a field day with easily justified campaigns against “Zionism” that would exponentially magnify their regional popularity. Israeli hardliners would see the takeover of Syria as a brilliant coup giving them a fast-closing window to take out Iran as a regional competitor. Even if no country actually decided to start a war, the rising tensions and rapid pace of developments would dramatically raise the danger of war through miscalculation or a third-party provocation.

The impact of a solution to the Syrian mess dominated by Ankara would be far less dangerous to regional stability. Regardless of who liked or did not like a moderate Turkish leadership role in forming a new Syria, such an arrangement would be sufficiently non-threatening and offer sufficient potential benefits to make everyone else take a deep breath before using violence to oppose it. Washington could calculate that a democratic Syria under Turkish guidance would no longer be a regional irritant. Tehran could calculate that its expanding economic ties with Turkey are, in the end, worth far more than its alliance with a discredited Assad. Even if it did not, what could Tehran do once Turkish ground forces were inside Syria? Tel Aviv would lose a military opponent, potentially gain a neutral Syrian state, and might think it could talk Ankara into forgetting about the Golan Heights. Riyadh could figure that it could always work with Sunni Turkey and slowly gain influence in Syria through its financial clout. And Erdogan, now solidly in control with his impressive 2:1 electoral victory over his nearest competitor and justified by the growing urgency of addressing the Syrian refugee flood, might just be able to pull this off. At the end of the day, Turkey has a unique regional combination of low “fear-factor” and high power.

But Erdogan’s moment to act is now. The world will not be able to ignore the unfolding horror in Syria forever. Sooner or later, if it continues to worsen, Washington will intervene militarily. If that happens, we will see Iraq all over again, but with Israel even more deeply involved and, this time, Iran and Saudi Arabia both spring-loaded to protect their perceived interests. Lacking popular support, the time that was available to Bush for his anti-Iraq war preparations, the strong economy inherited from Clinton, and military force (given current commitments in Afghanistan), Obama will intervene with insufficient power, opening the door to both Israeli and Saudi influence. Each of the latter will move to radicalize the situation for their own short-term interests. Syrian popular interests will be ignored, and extremists will have their day, once more. Iraq 2005 and Lebanon late-1980s come to mind. Every regional action hero will move to Syria for every imaginable purpose except helping Syrians.

The danger of the Israeli Expansion Scenario lies in the number of conflicting and interacting military and sectarian dynamics it would provoke. This set of dynamics will contain more exponential shifts of influence, more tipping points, more tricky delayed reactions, more oscillations derived from negative feedback loops than anyone will be able to understand in time to react. It will be plagued by fixes that fail including expensive examples of the subset, Shooting Yourself in the Foot, e.g., applying military force to prevent terrorism and thus provoking terrorism; shifting the burden, e.g., forgetting social collapse while fighting political enemies; and the needless creation of accidental adversaries, thereby spoiling some beautiful relationships. The overwhelming complexity of the situation will stimulate a degree of self-organization that may give rise to the emergence of some unsettling new political phenomena.  Recent examples of self-organization include Aum Shinrikyu, al Qua’ida, the Iraqi insurgency against U.S. occupation, illegal Israeli settler terrorism, and Tahrir Square. Attempts by the status quo forces artificially to constrain disconcerting but stabilizing change will pave the road to more black swans (see Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth, “The Black Swan of Cairo,” Foreign Affairs May-June 2011: 90:3, 33-39), further stunning and roiling the world. All involved actors, guilty of the “action bias” (Taleb, 39) that so plagues U.S. foreign policy-making, will end up making incomprehensible circumstances worse by following the honored dictum, “when in doubt, just do something.” Syria is moving toward chaos, but that in no way proves that more energy (money, weapons, feverishly busy actors) inserted into the system will not just push it faster in the same direction.

Moreover, as former Israeli officials themselves have warned, Israel today may either be plotting war against Iran or stumbling into it. Both dangers will only be increased by an Israeli Lebanonization of Syria.

Syria is weak but strategically located. As a stable, rationally governed state, Syria acts as a buffer, keeping the regional tigers—Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabia—from scratching each others’ eyes out. But as a failed state, Syria is transformed from buffer into battleground. To get at each other, Israel and Iran must cross Syria. Weak Lebanon in its turn becomes further exposed to outside influences if no strong state presence is guarding its Syrian border. Syria as a power vacuum is a threat to the region that will demand action.

These are just scenarios; neither is a prediction, nor are they by any means mutually exclusive or logically exhaustive. The two could even combine into one marvelous dream world of Turkish leadership putting a Muslim face on an international effort backed quietly by American power. But that too requires quick initiative by an Erdogan whose  time may just have come. In a word, the region now needs Erdogan to put his money where his mouth is.

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