By Christopher Phillips
Published in Middle East Eye, 4th June 2014
The days when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was hailed as a democratic reformer at home and a diplomatic visionary abroad seem a distant memory. The violent suppression of protestors commemorating the Gezi Park protests this month, and his alleged punching of a critic after the Soma mining disaster are the latest in a long line of repressive actions fuelling a growing opposition movement.That said, the Turkish prime minister retains substantial support that delivered him victory in March’s municipal elections with 43% of the vote, boosting his chances of being elected president in August.
In foreign policy, however, there are no silver linings. Erdogan’s hopes of joining the EU have broken down; his close ties to US president Barack Obama are strained over the crackdowns; while his steadfast support for the Muslim Brotherhood has rocked relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Yet one area stands out as Erdogan’s greatest foreign policy headache: the ongoing civil war in neighbouring Syria.
While Syria’s three year war is often characterised as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, Iran, the US and Russia, it is Turkey that has played one of the most central roles. After calling for president Bashar al-Assad to stand down in 2011, Ankara allowed the rebel Free Syria Army to be based in its territory. This facilitated military success against Assad in northern Syria in 2012-13.
With Ankara’s acquiescence, rebels captured most of the crossings along Syria’s 910km border with Turkey. This, along with Turkey’s much vaunted “open door” policy to Syrian refugees allowed fighters, funds and weapons to steadily flow south. While Turkey denies providing weapons directly, eye witness accounts and journalistic investigations dispute this and, at the minimum, a blind eye has deliberately been turned to arming by allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the CIA. Either way, Turkey became the vital staging ground for the rebels’ war with Assad.
Yet this approach has failed. Ankara modelled its strategy on the fall of Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 and expected a US-led international intervention once a rebel foothold was secured. But no intervention came, with the last hope seemingly extinguished when Obama called off a proposed strike in September 2013 after a regime chemical weapon attack.
Assad, with considerable support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, has meanwhile halted the rebels’ charge south and the opposition has fractured into various Islamist, jihadist and al-Qaeda affiliated militia – some more concerned with fighting one another or carving out local fiefdoms than fighting Damascus. Indeed, external backers including Turkey have contributed to these divisions by supporting divergent groups based on ideological affinity and short term military goals.
Assad remains in power and is likely to stay for some time. Though he may never reconquer northern Syria, the region looks set to become a security threat on Turkey’s doorstep, a safe haven for Jihadist and Kurdish separatist militia. Turkish media claimed that one such group, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL), were behind the Reyhanli bombing that killed 51 Turks in May 2013. Add to this the 800,000 refugees now sheltering in Turkey, and the internal sectarian tensions Ankara’s involvement in Syria has caused, it seems that 3 years after Erdogan cut his ties with the Ba’ath regime, his goals remain unfulfilled and his country is worse off.
So how culpable is the prime minister? Erdogan was already the leading force in determining Turkish foreign policy, alongside Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, but he took a particular interest in the Syria crisis, being personally outraged when his former ally Assad refused to halt the violence as he’d promised in 2011. Erdogan subsequently lobbied Obama in person to intervene militarily, reportedly enraged when the 2013 military strike was cancelled.
There is little public support for his stance, with only 33% backing it in 2012, and, given the top-down nature of the premier’s leadership style, Turkish involvement in Syria might be seen as ‘Erdogan’s war’. Indeed, one must ask whether a different premier would have taken such an uncompromising and combative approach.
Moreover, it is an approach characterised by successive miscalculations. Erdogan firstly overestimated his influence over Assad, falsely believing he could persuade his ally to reform, then he under-estimated the durability of Assad’s regime, thinking it would crash as quickly as other dictatorships in Egypt or Tunisia. He then over-estimated the willingness of the US to intervene militarily as it had in Libya, and finally over-estimated the opposition’s unity, not realising the ideological and personal fissures that would split the already disorganize rebels.
In fairness, Erdogan was joined in his miscalculations by many leaders who opposed Assad. However, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the West don’t share Syria’s longest border and risk the level of blowback that could befall Turkey.
In spite of failure so far, there seem few signs of any shift in Turkish policy. Turkey’s involvement could even escalate. A recent leaked tape showed head of National Intelligence (MIT) and Erdogan ally Hakan Fidan proposing a Turkish invasion of Syria under a false pretext, though it also suggested caution from the military.
Similarly, when rebels led by al-Qaeda affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra captured the Syrian village of Kassab in March, Turkish commentators noted that, given the proximity to Turkey, the operation must have had Ankara’s support. Davutoglu emphatically denied any Turkish involvement or ties to Jihadist groups.
However, Turkey’s western allies increasingly see the Syrian war through a security lens. Three murders at a Brussels Jewish museum in May were allegedly the first terror attacks committed in Europe by a Jihadist returnee from Syria, and pressure will increase on Turkey to tighten its border. Any alleged Turkish ties to jihadists would also likely be increasingly scrutinised should attacks in Europe increase.
In such circumstances how long can Erdogan’s forlorn strategy to topple Assad continue before Turkey too is forced to prioritise a more securitised approach? That said, given the stubbornness that has characterised Erdogan’s political career thus far, don’t expect any sudden U-turns on his war in Syria just yet.