The good news for Ankara from last night's presidential debate on foreign policy issues was that, unlike in one of the Republican primary debates, where Texas Governor Rick Perry referred to Turkey as being ruled by "Islamic terrorists," there was really very little mention of the country -- positive or negative -- by either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.
The bad news was that whatever was said on what is perhaps the most critical issue facing Turkey right now -- the continuing crisis in Syria -- made it crystal clear that Ankara is far ahead of Washington when it comes to pushing for greater military action against the Assad regime.
While Ankara has been active in supporting the Syrian opposition, both in political and -- according to various reports -- military terms, and has in recent weeks beefed up its military presence along the Syrian border and retaliated with its own artillery after Syrian mortars landed in Turkish territory, both Obama and Romney showed little appetite for the United States to get militarily involved in Syria.
Asked about the crisis there by moderator Bob Schieffer, President Obama responded:
....what we’re seeing taking place in Syria is heartbreaking, and that’s why we are going to do everything we can to make sure that we are helping the opposition. But we also have to recognize that, you know, for us to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step. And we have to do so making absolutely certain that we know who we are helping, that we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or our allies in the region.
Romney, meanwhile, echoed Obama, simply saying, "We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict."
As an analysis piece today in Today's Zaman points out, the words uttered by both Obama and Romney could (or should) force Ankara to fine tune its Syria policy, lest it find itself getting further drawn towards a military engagement with Syria but without critical American support. (On a related note, a new survey released by the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, found that only ten percent of Turks surveyed supported their country getting involved militarily in a "post-Assad Syria," while 51 percent said Turkey should remain neutral or uninvolved.)
The debate may have made Washington's thinking on Syria clear, but it left unanswered the question of what does the difference of opinion between the US and Turkey on the use of military force against the Assad regime mean for the two countries' relations? Could frustration among Turkish leaders, especially Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, over Washington's refusal to get involved in military action against Assad lead to the kinds of tensions that characterized Turkey-US relations a few years ago? It's a question that policymakers in both Ankara and Washington might want to consider.