By: Semih Idiz for Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse – 20.3.2013 – Two years have elapsed in the Syrian conflict, and no apparent end to the bloodshed is in sight, as the warring sides are locked in what looks increasingly like a war of attrition. Ankara’s calculations concerning Syria seem to have amounted to nothing over the past few years.
But even more than that, Syria has turned out to be the crisis on which Turkey’s ambitious Middle East policies foundered in ways expected by neither Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu — the architect of the now-defunct “zero problems with neighbors” policy.
Just over two years ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Erdogan met in a friendly atmosphere for the groundbreaking ceremony for the so-called “Friendship Dam,” to be built on the Orontes River which separates the two countries. Erdogan couldn’t have predicted that this friendship would turn sour just a few months down the road. Turkey and Syria had not only lifted visa restrictions in order to enable the two nations to mingle and increase their economic interaction, but had also held joint cabinet meetings to demonstrate just how close the two countries had become.
There was also a tone of defiance in Ankara’s Syrian policy at the time — sending a message to a West increasingly wary of these ties that Turkey, and not others, would decide who Ankara would establish ties with.
In the meantime, Ankara demonstrated its potential as a regional “soft power” when it mediated indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel. Although that effort ended abruptly after Israel unleashed its brutal “Operation Cast Lead” against Gaza at the end of 2008, it nevertheless showed that Turkey could act for the benefit of the region. Another development along these lines was the 2010 deal spelled out in the “Tehran Declaration,” worked out by Turkey with Brazil for Iran’s enriched uranium stocks. That deal was eventually rejected by Washington, but nevertheless proved Turkey’s ability to mediate regional disputes. But all that is a distant echo today: Assad has turned into Erdogan’s archenemy, and Turkey retains scant leverage over Iran due to the radically different positions of the two countries on Syria. What went so wrong for Turkey that it finds itself in this situation?
There was nothing wrong in Ankara’s opening up to the Arab world, with Syria as the main litmus test in this regard. Erdogan and Davutoglu’s intentions on Syria were ultimately good. Their mistake was adopting overly ambitious policies that misjudged the Middle East and miscalculated Turkey’s capacity to influence the course of events in the region. Those were the days when Davutoglu claimed that Turkey knew the Middle East better than most because of its past there, and uttered remarks to the effect that not even a leaf could budge in the region without Ankara’s consent.
According to Davutoglu, Turkey was “the region’s game setter.” Armed with that kind of self-assurance, he went to Damascus in August 2011 with the hopes of convincing Assad to reform his country and avoid the fate of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
But six hours of talks with Assad bore no fruit, and ties between Ankara and Damascus took a nosedive after that failure. Davutoglu had simply overestimated his capacity to convince Assad. But Davutoglu’s misjudgments of Syria didn’t end there. He also failed to consider Syria’s complicated demographic makeup with its ethnic, sectarian and regional fault lines, and he overlooked the bad blood that went back to the Hama massacres of 1982.
Erdogan and Davutoglu preferred to see the situation in Syria simplistically, as a case of a brutal dictator attacking and killing his own people. Ankara failed to consider the fact that Assad still retained support from minority Alawites and from Christians who feared Sunnis were out to avenge the past.
In the end, Turkey’s support for the “oppressed Syrian people” came to be seen by Syria’s Alawites and Christians as support for the Syria’s Sunni majority. As a result, many in the region now think Ankara is pursuing a divisive policy in Syria based on its own sectarian preferences. Another major misjudgment by Ankara concerned Syria’s historic links with Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, and Iran, as well as radical groups like the Lebanese Hezbollah, for whom Assad’s survival is vitally important. Turkey has had no success in diplomatic efforts aimed at convincing Moscow and Tehran to desert Assad for the opposition — a clear indication that Davutoglu didn’t understand the nature of the strategic relationship these countries seek to protect with Syria.
The irony is that Volkan Bozkir, a deputy from Erdogan’s own party who is a former senior diplomat, and currently heads the Foreign Relations Committee in the Turkish parliament, has said on numerous occasions that there can be no settlement to the Syrian crisis which does not factor in Russian interests. One could add Iran’s interests to this equation. This realistic piece of advice from a seasoned diplomat was not taken seriously by Erdogan or Davutoglu, who instead put all of Turkey’s eggs into single basket and developed a one-dimensional policy of dispatching Assad by any means possible. Turkey today continues to bet on a military victory by the opposition, even as that seems increasingly impossible.
Ankara also underestimated the “Kurdish dimension” of the Syrian uprising, and Turkey was caught unexpectedly when Syrian Kurds started gaining ground along the border with Turkey. Kurdish reports claim that Ankara went on to pursue a proxy war by supporting jihadist elements such as Jabhat al-Nusra fighting the Syrian Kurds. As a result of these miscalculations, Ankara today faces a multidimensional crisis in Syria, with refugees continuing to stream into Turkish territory and new threats posed to Turkey’s security. Ankara is no longer a key player, let alone a “game setter,” in the search for a resolution to the crisis, having lost its impartiality in regional disputes.
No mater what policy it pursued, the Erdogan government would have been faced with a serious crisis on its borders as a result of the uprising in Syria. But had it positioned itself better with a deeper understanding of the region, instead of operating on the basis of subjective assumptions, it could have left some useful channels of communication open with the Assad regime.
Instead, it preferred to burn bridges instead and turn Assad — who was no less of a brutal dictator when Ankara enjoyed good ties with him — into an arch-enemy. It chose to pursue policies that have left Turkey facing Shiite and Alawite accusations of destabilizing the region with sectarian policies, which in turn have deepened the divisions in Syria. Semih İdiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign-policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English language Hurriyet Daily News.