On Oct. 13, 2009, the Oncupinar border gate between Turkey and Syria played a starring role in a diplomatic photo op. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moualem, shook hands, smiled for the cameras and en route to signing an agreement to end visa requirements between the two countries later that day lifted the border barrier. The symbolism was lost on no one. Only 11 years earlier, thousands of Turkish troops had massed along the same border, awaiting orders to deploy. Throughout the 1990s, the Syrian government had sheltered Turkey's public enemy No. 1, Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist group. If Syria refused to expel him, the Turkish leadership made clear in 1998, then the Turks would march on Damascus. The Syrians flinched. Ocalan was sent packing.
In the years that followed the standoff, Syria and Turkey became close allies. Long-running land and water disputes were either settled or shelved. Trade boomed, from $773 million in 2002 to $2.5 billion in 2010. In April 2009, the two countries held joint military exercises. Just last year, together with Jordan and Lebanon, they signed a free-trade agreement that many Turkish commentators hailed as the dawn of a Middle East Union.
In reaching out to the Syrian regime, Turkey managed to inspire its confidence, says Khaled Khoja, a Turkish-based member of the Damascus Declaration committee, a Syrian opposition group. In 2005, Khoja recalls, Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose government had been accused of orchestrating the assassination of Lebanese President Rafiq Hariri, found himself in a major bind. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused calls by the U.S. and others to isolate the Syrian regime. Instead, says Khoja, he helped bring Assad's regime in from the cold: "He made Turkey a bridge to Syria." What Turkey got out of all this, more than anything else, says Khoja, was Syria's trust the kind of trust that allowed it to mediate between Syria and Israel in 2008. This, says Khoja, "was a very good approach."
But, he adds, it was not enough. "Turkey should have pushed Bashar to make reforms in past years," says Khoja. "You cannot have an attitude, an active role, unless you are brave enough to step behind the reforms. You have to say this strongly." Turkey did not. Over the past few years, in the face of Syria's dismal human-rights record and its legacy of authoritarian rule, the government in Ankara has remained silent. If autocrats like Assad were to be prodded into changing course, Turkish officials argued, it would be through diplomacy, not pressure. "We tell our counterparts the importance of being respectful of human rights," Davutoglu once said. "But we don't do it in public."
Turkish officials were wrong to assume that a policy of behind-the-scenes prodding could yield tangible results in Syria, says Walid Saffour, president of the London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee. "All the time they were hearing that the Syrians were going to do so and so," he says. "The Turkish government believed what Bashar and his advisers told [them]. That was a game of deception on the part of the Syrian government."
In recent weeks, with the turmoil across its southern border showing no signs of coming to an end threatening not only its rapprochement with Syria but also the stability of the entire region Turkey has gone into emergency mode, with Erdogan regularly on the phone with Assad and top officials, including Davutoglu and an intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, who was dispatched to Damascus. As a senior Western diplomat in Damascus tells TIME, Turkey's backdoor diplomacy might now be the outside world's last remaining chance to persuade Assad to introduce new reforms and avoid more bloodshed. "The Turkish approach allows the Syrians to listen to the outside world's concerns without feeling as if they are being lectured," the diplomat tells TIME, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It allows them to make changes without giving the impression that someone is forcing their hand."
Oppositionists like Saffour would prefer for the Turks to align themselves squarely with the demonstrators. "Today Erdogan condemns the killing, the detentions and the repeated massacres," says Saffour, "but he is not blaming Bashar for this." As much as the Turkish leader might want to ensure Assad's survival, he adds, he will soon have to choose between the leadership and the protesters. "The people inside Syria are now calling for a change of regime altogether," says Saffour. "The Turkish stand shouldn't be [opposed to] the stand of the people. If they want to do something, they should support the people, not the regime."
Reached by phone during a visit to Turkey, Riad al-Shaqfa, secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, says he believes Assad can step back from the brink. "The doors of reform always remain open if Bashar is serious in this matter and if the people feel that he is serious about it," al-Shaqfa says through a translator. "To make the reforms does not take much. It took them 15 minutes to amend the constitution so that Bashar could inherit the country from his father. They can issue orders to withdraw the security forces and the tanks from the streets and to the stop bombardment of the people in a matter of hours." However, the outlook is getting bleaker by the day, says al-Shaqfa, who adds, "There can be many initiatives and the Turks are demanding this, but nobody is listening." Khoja sees no room for optimism. "If Bashar is not listening to Turkey," he says, "then he is not listening to anyone."
Piotr Zalewski is the Turkey correspondent for the Polish newsmagazine Polityka. He has contributed to Foreign Policy, the Atlantic.com and the National.