Erdoğan’s Syria motion strain, 10 years after Iraq

Erdoğan’s Syria motion strain, 10 years after Iraq

Slightly more than 10 years ago, on March 1, 2003, the Turkish Parliament failed to approve a motion by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government to allow American troops to use Turkish territory, in order to open another front in the north for the invasion of Iraq.

That was despite the AK Parti’s majority in the Parliament. Almost a third of the AK Parti group joined the opposition in refusing to actively contribute in a war in a neighboring Muslim country. Four ministers of the Cabinet who had their signatures underneath the motion declared afterwards that they could not approve of it; if three of them had said yes, the motion would have passed and the whole course of the Iraq War and the Kurdish issue in Turkey would have flown in a different manner.

The rejection of the motion had a traumatic effect on Turkish-U.S. relations, too. Soon, on Independence Day, U.S. commandoes were to arrest Turkish commandoes working as “observers” in Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdish region of Iraq, accusing of them of being involved in subversive activities by targeting Kurds, who were collaborating with the invading forces. That was one of the lowest points in the history of Turkish-American relations.

It took a long time for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan to win the trust of the White House back. In the meantime, investigations and court cases subsequently dealt a blow to the military, which had failed to support its main ally’s demands on Iraq and was charged with trying to undermine the government. The White House, on the other hand, started to take the political authority of Erdoğan (who had started to win consecutive elections) as a counterpart, instead of the military, thus shifting its traditional choice. Erdoğan’s permission to allow strategic U.S. early warning radars operated by NATO as part of a new defense system endorsed that trust. That may now have been overshadowed by his firm stance against Israel and recent confrontation with the U.S. and the West over Syria, and especially over the coup in Egypt. Nevertheless, U.S. President Barack Obama’s sympathy for Erdoğan is protecting the Turkish PM against possible action based on Turkey’s regional policies and the quality of its democracy.

Now, following the Aug. 21 chemical attack in Syria, the U.S. and the West are seemingly motivated to “punish” the Bashar al-Assad regime, in order to deter it from attacking its own people - attacks that have cost the lives of around 100,000 people in a civil war over more than two years. Russia is firmly opposed, but the U.S. is pushing the limits and telling Russia to withdraw its support for al-Assad, as otherwise it may lead a coalition of the willing to hit the Syrian regime whether or not there is a U.N. resolution, or even a NATO decision.

Turkey has wanted the West to intervene in Syria for a long time. If there is a NATO decision, Turkey would be a part of it and be ready to provide support for any demand from NATO, including the strategic airbase of İncirlik. Government spokesman Bülent Arınç has said they are ready to bring another motion to Parliament.

All three opposition parties in Parliament – the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) - have declared that they would reject a motion officially dragging Turkey into a war in its Muslim neighbor. The opposition from the BDP might put Kurdish-origin deputies of the AK Parti under additional pressure. So, if anything is requested of Turkey for military action, Erdoğan might be in a position where he has to face another vote stress in Parliament, 10 years after Iraq, this time on Syria.

As a narrow possibility, perhaps Obama would spare Erdoğan that difficult position, and would not ask for Turkey’s direct contribution to a possible operation. On the other hand, that would mean Erdoğan’s chance to claim to be the leader of the Syrian operation was gone.