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Turkey's bold about-face on Syria

Turkey's support for Syrian insurgents reverses detente with Damascus. Its about-face can reinforce an Arab League agreement with Syria to end violence, and reassure the West of its commitment to NATO values. But is the break an exception, or a broad change in foreign policy?

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Turkey’s bold backing of regime change in Syria – until recently a close friend – has caught many by surprise.

By hosting Syrian insurgents and political opposition figures, and by readying harsh unilateral sanctions against Damascus, Turkey’s about-face with Syria signals a potentially significant shift to much stronger support for the democratic Arab awakening.

That could reinforce yesterday’s agreement between the Arab League and the Syrian government. Syria says it will end the bloody crackdown on protesters, release political prisoners, and begin talks with the opposition – though Turkish officials say they have heard these promises before.

Turkey’s firm break with Syria should also reassure Turkey’s NATO allies, who had begun to question the commitment of the region’s most established Muslim democracy to its Western ties and values.

The Arab Spring is forcing Ankara to confront the new realities of the Middle East. For the last decade, it has sought to open new markets and expand its regional influence through a policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” It put no democratic preconditions on economic partners such as Iran and Syria, and this accommodating approach has sometimes caused friction with its NATO allies.

True, Turkey initially inspired admiration in the West – and Arab world – for its early embrace of the democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. But it misjudged Libya, where it had strong business ties, by initially rejecting sanctions and even opposing NATO’s involvement, before ultimately changing course.

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