Erdoğan has to find an exit from the Syria situation

Erdoğan has to find an exit from the Syria situation

The Turkish government’s Syria policy was based on the assumption that the U.S. and the West would put their weight behind toppling the Bashar al-Assad regime in the fall of 2011, as in Libya earlier in the same year. 

Ankara thought it would take a maximum six months for al-Assad to fall. Then there would be elections in Syria, which the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government was almost sure the Muslim Brotherhood would win, as was the case in Egypt after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. The belief was that the AK Parti had set an excellent example for the Muslim world by coming to power through non-violent, democratic means. 

That was the core of the speech U.S. President Barack Obama delivered at the Turkish Parliament in April 2009 during his first visit overseas as president. There were even parties in the Arab world with names that duplicated or resembled the name “AK Parti,” with the Arab Spring seen as an excellent opportunity for the democratic rise of Islamic politics throughout the region.

Nothing went according to the AK Parti’s design of the Syria situation. First of all, the U.S. and the West suggested a Libya-like operation in the spring months of 2011 when they had the backing of Russia. But then President Erdoğan (then prime minister) and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (then foreign minister) also asked the West to give them a chance to convince al-Assad to treat protesters fairly and allow elections in Syria (after all, Erdoğan and al-Assad had been calling each other “brother” for some time and even enjoying holidays together). When those efforts failed, Ankara made a U-turn and began asking for a military operation. But by then the mood in the West had changed. 

The Russians, for example, believing that they had been cheated by the Americans and NATO in Libya, made it clear that they would not allow any U.N. umbrella to undertake a possible operation against Syria, which hosts the only Russian military base in the entire Middle East and East Mediterranean. In addition, Obama was entering an election year with a promise not to send U.S. troops to die in foreign territories, as Republican administrations had done before him. Any Syria operation had to be outsourced, but who would fight and die on behalf of Western interests there?

All this was before the election of the Muslim-Brotherhood-backed Mohamad Morsi in Egypt, and before he was toppled through a military coup encouraged by Saudi Arabia. The U.S. had by then seen that forcing support of democratic Islamist movements in the Arab world was not only futile but also against its own interests. Only the AK Parti example - in non-Arab but Muslim Turkey - was perhaps possible because of democratic development that resulted from the separation of government from religion.

The breakdown of the Muslim Brotherhood network in Syria after Egypt accelerated centrifugal forces that had already began to evolve into a new generation of terrorist organizations. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had started by the beginning of 2013 and Turkey was late to diagnose the true nature and capabilities of ISIL. Some of the opposition groups Turkey had been supporting against al-Assad were already shifting in the direction of ISIL or al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Not only was Ankara mistaken, but Turkey also shared a very vulnerable 910-km long border with Syria.

The spillover of the Syrian civil war into Turkey has made the country a theater for the terrorist attacks of ISIL. Meanwhile, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), encouraged by the advances of its Syrian branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), abandoned its dialogue process with the government (a move that was most welcomed by Erdoğan, who thought it was going nowhere anyway) and started carrying out acts of terrorism again. In addition to all this, the refugee problem grew into a crisis of international proportions.

Now, after the bomb attack in Ankara that killed 28 military and civilian army personnel on Feb. 17, the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu duo is getting ever closer to a crossroads in their Syria policy. Erdoğan, with his main agenda of changing Turkey’s political system into a presidential one to consolidate all executive powers, could soon find himself having to take a radical decision to find an exit for both the country and himself.