Hubris and sectarian Syria policy pose a threat to Turkey
Blog on: Speaker’s Corner
A tidal wave of social and political change is transforming the Middle East. Autocratic regimes that came to power in the aftermath of the First World War and at the end of the Ottoman Empire collapsed or are struggling to survive. Reactionary forces and democrats fight for power and it is hard to predict if the gains of the Arab Spring will bring lasting freedoms, more rights, more participation in government, and liberal democracy for Arab citizens.
It could be that several of the revolutions collapse like the European Revolutions of 1848/49, in those days known as the Springtime of the Peoples. More than ten thousand people were killed all over Europe. They were seen as a failure at the time, but they sowed the seeds for long lasting structural changes in the decades to come. Feudalism got eliminated as well as absolute monarchies. Multinational empires collapsed and gave way to nation states and self-determination. Rights, conditions and salaries of working and middle classes improved.
Hope and great expectations were the prevailing mood three years ago when the revolutions got under way, sparked by the self-immolation by Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia on 18 December 2010.
Initially Turkey was reluctant to support the people’s push for power against autocratic regimes in Arab countries. Turkey’s mildly Islamist prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan developed friendly relations with the autocratic Baath regime in Syria, a former enemy that supported the militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) until 1999. Turkey signed 50 agreements with ‘strategic partner’ Syria between 2009 and 2010. Erdogan called Syrian president Bashar al-Assad ‘my brother’ and both leaders and their spouses toured Damascus in 2009. But ties with Syria deteriorated several months after the suppression of the uprising developed into large scale massacres in 2011. When Assad didn’t want to heed his ‘brother’s’ advice to negotiate with the opposition Erdogan felt betrayed and threw his weight full square behind the Sunni rebels. That was an emotional response and not a well thought-out decision, as none of Turkey’s vital interests were at risk. It was a strategic blunder. Turkey lost its moderating role and became involved in the ever escalating sectarian civil war in its southern neighbor, with who it shares a 560-mile border. It was a grave miscalculation of Erdogan and his minister of foreign affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu to expect that Assad would be finished as quickly as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. They envisioned the same scenario as in Libya in 2011 when France and the United Kingdom took the lead and introduced a United Nations Security Council Resolution demanding “an immediate ceasefire” and authorizing the international community to establish a no-fly zone and to use all means necessary short of foreign occupation to protect civilians. Ankara has been pushing for a regime change and active support from a western military coalition for the rebels to bring down the Assad regime. Turkey did its part by hosting the Syrian National Council and hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. After the chemical attack in Damascus Erdogan took the most hawkish position and promoted a Kosovo scenario: a bombing campaign by NATO lasting several months in 1999 that ended the sectarian war.
The hubris of its neo-Ottoman rhetoric in its foreign policy and in its insistence that their ‘humanitarian’ and ‘idealistic’ Syria and Egypt stances are the only correct ones, is posing threats to Turkey’s security and damaging its economy. The harsh statements against al-Assad and all countries that do support him and those in the West that do not actively intervene to bring down the Baath regime ‘caused Turkey to be seen as one of the participating parties in the conflict’, said Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD) President Muharrem Yilmaz one week ago. He criticized Erdogan’s Syria policy and called for Ankara to return to being an honest broker in the wider region in the interests of boosting the country’s economy. “We expect and hope that Turkish foreign policy will be managed in a way to position our country as an agent in solution processes, and not in a confrontation, in line with its deep seated pacifist tradition,” he said.
Turkey has become part of the civil war too by allowing weapons from Qatar and Saudi Arabia for the Sunni Jihadist groups like the al-Nusra Front – related to al-Qaeda – and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) to pass through Turkish territory. In June 2012 Syria shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom II military jet near the Turkish-Syrian border. In May of this year two car bombs in the border town of Reyhanli, close to the Syrian border, caused the death of 51 and injured at least 140 people. It was the bloodiest act of terrorism in Turkish history. Suspects who were arrested were said to be supporters of the Assad regime. Today the Al Qaeda-linked group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) threatened Turkey with suicidal bombings in Ankara, Istanbul among other targets unless it re-opens Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh crossing points no later than next Monday. Turkish authorities closed these after ISIL seized control of the town of Azaz.
The opposition against the Syria policy of Erdogan is growing. According to a poll by Kadir Has University of Istanbul only 11.4% of the respondents approved the option for Turkey to “support opposition forces”. And only 9.4% said Turkey should assist if there is international military intervention. To minimize the risk of a similar humiliation as British prime minister David Cameron’s dramatic defeat in a Commons vote that in effect ruled out British support of a US-led military action in Syria Erdogan is taking precautions. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) will merge legislative motions permitting cross-border military operations in Syria and northern Iraq to replace last year’s motions which expire on October 4 and October 17. Prime minister Erdogan is increasing pressure on his AKP MP’s already, because their loyalty for his controversial Syria policy cannot be taken for granted. On March 1, 2003, parliament defeated an AKP motion to allow U.S. forces to use Turkish territory for the invasion of Iraq. A third of his MP’s voted with the opposition.
The over ambitious foreign policy of the AKP leaders failed dramatically. The slogan ‘zero problems with neighbors’ has turned into a reality of ‘zero neighbors without problems’. The failure of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy in the Middle East has left the secular Republic of Turkey isolated and with no friends or allies except two reactionary absolute monarchies: Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The spin doctors of the AKP are trying to sugar coat the failure. “The claim that Turkey has been left alone in the Middle East is not true, but if it is a criticism then we should say that is a precious loneliness,” Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalın said on his Twitter account on July 31. Yigit Bulut, another of Erdogan’s advisers, went even further and claimed that there are only two and a half leaders in the world. “Today there are two and a half leaders in the world. One is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the second is Vladimir Putin and the other half is Barack Obama. One hundred thousand people wouldn’t have died in Syria if the US had done what Erdogan said.”
Turkey can get out of its isolation if it proves that it wants a democratic alternative to the Assad regime by guaranteeing that no money and arms will go to any of the Salafist and jihadi groups. It should put al-Qaeda affiliates like al-Nusra on its black list of terrorist groups like the U.S. did in December 2012. And the Prime Minister and its advisers might take the example of their president, Abdullah Gül. His style and speeches are non-confrontational and consensus oriented. Turkey has made lots of progress in many fields in the last decade, but it isn’t a model of democracy, so it should tone down its rhetoric towards others in the region and elsewhere. President Gül has defended the interests of Turkey at the United Nations last week and asked the world leaders to stay on the side of change in the Middle East despite the ongoing troubles. In an address at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York he had a warning too. “Sacrificing freedom and democracy in order to ensure predictability and stability only invites greater peril. When people lose faith in mainstream politics and democracy, what follows is extremism and radicalization”.