Erdoğan’s troubled days in the Middle East

Erdoğan’s troubled days in the Middle East

The Turkish government decided to close the Turkish Cultural Center and trade office in Lebanon yesterday for security reasons following the kidnapping of two Turkish Airlines (THY) pilots on Aug. 9, probably by Shiite militants demanding the release of nine Shiite pilgrims who were kidnapped in Syria last year. The Turkish Foreign Ministry is trying to explain that Turkey has nothing to do with the kidnapping of the Lebanese Shiite pilgrims, although it has contributed to the efforts to free them. But Hezbollah believes that it was the Sunni militants of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime that captured the pilgrims and that Turkey should be held responsible since Turkey supported the FSA. In the end, it is not easy to change perceptions in the Middle East with statements alone.

There is no reliable information regarding the whereabouts of the two pilots, Murat Akpınar and Murat Ağca, who are believed to be in captivity in separate places, but both Lebanese and Turkish officials have made statements saying they believe the two are alive. But that is not the only problem Turkey’s Tayyip Erdoğan government is facing in the Middle East nowadays.

Perhaps there is no need to repeat that Turkey still has no relations with Israel and Syria, and only minimal relations with Egypt following the July 3 coup. Syria is becoming a bigger pain in Ankara’s neck every other day. Yesterday, some 3,000 more Syrian migrants rushed into Turkey from the Akçakale border gate right across from Tel Abayd, where fierce fighting has been continuing between the militants of the al-Nusra Front, which is the Syria branch of al-Qaeda, and the militants of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syria branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey. The PKK has also been carrying out talks with the Erdoğan government in order to end its three-decade-old armed campaign against Turkey that has claimed some 40,000 lives so far.

The PKK wants Turkey to intervene in the fight to stop al-Nusra from killing Kurds in Syria. It is a very hard decision for the government. At first it would be hard to explain to the Turkish public that they have to help the PKK (when many people are already upset at seeing the PKK “celebrate” the anniversary of the “first attack” against Turkey with public demonstrations without any intervention by security forces). On the other hand, ignoring the PKK in Syria could jeopardize the peace talks in Turkey. Second, Ankara is afraid that such a move could further divide the Syrian opposition. It is true that photos of Gen. Selim Idriss, the head of the FSA, were released, reportedly showing him near al-Assad’s hometown and stronghold of Latakia. But the FSA and the Syrian National Coalition in general is not as strong as before since the coup in Egypt, which toppled Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohamad Morsi; the brotherhood is in decline across the Middle East, in contrast to the rise of al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda is stepping up its presence in Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Arabic-speaking Africa, too. The al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab’s attack against the Turkish Embassy in Mogadishu on July 28 must have shown Erdoğan that the Turkish opening in the Middle East and North Africa may not come off as easy as planned. It is probably not correct to say that Turkey has bit off more that it can chew, but Turkish foreign policy regarding the whole region might need some fine-tuning.