The failure of Turkey’s Syria and Egypt policy

The failure of Turkey’s Syria and Egypt policy

Kurdish forces’ capture of Tel Abyad, previously a stronghold of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has coincided with the unfortunate June 16 confirmation of the death sentence for Mohamad Morsi, the first elected but toppled former president of Egypt.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and President Tayyip Erdoğan have again condemned the court decision in Egypt, but they have not said much about the Tel Abyad situation. In fact, both are evidence of the failure of the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Parti) Middle East policy.

Considering these cases, it is impossible not to recall the recently published book “12 Years with Abdullah Gül” by the former president’s press advisor, Ahmet Sever. In it, Sever writes that Gül accused both PM Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu at the time of acting like the prime minister and foreign minister of Egypt and Syria, and not in line with best Turkish interests.

There is a very heavy atmosphere in Ankara regarding the capture of Tel Abyad from ISIL by the YPG, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria that is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. There has been a last-minute effort to attach a small group within the Free Syrian Army (FSA) called Burkan el Fırat to the months-long offensive led by Kurdish forces, in order to be able to tell the public that it was not only Kurdish forces that captured the key border town. 

The same Kurdish forces repelled a massive ISIL attack on Kobane (formerly Ayn al-Arab), another town bordering Turkey, back in January. Now, almost 200 km of Syria along the Turkish border is under the control of Kurds. That is a matter of concern for the Turkish government, also within the context of what it describes as an “ethnic cleansing” by Kurds. 

It is likely that now that the jihadist militants have lost a major access route to the Turkish border, the U.S.-led coalition has now found an anvil to hammer between the city of Raqqa, ISIL’s headquarters in Syria. 

Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş announced last week that Turkey’s border with Syria would remain closed unless there was a humanitarian emergency. Right after him, President Erdoğan said “The West, which hits Arabs and Turkomans, puts terrorist organizations the PYD and the PKK in their place.” 

The U.S. Embassy in Ankara has stated that coalition planes hit only ISIL targets, without touching the civilian population. However, before the end of the week thousands more people had rushed to the border as clashes between Kurdish forces and ISIL intensified. Turkey had to let the civilians in, 23,000 more in the last two days added to the more than 2 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey. There are reports that an undisclosed number of jihadists have also crossed the border into Turkey along with the civilian population, after which some of them “surrendered” to Turkish security forces.

The capture of Tel Abyad by the Kurds was welcomed by Figen Yüksekdağ, the co-chair of the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). At the moment, it is not clear whether Prime Minister Davutoğlu will resume talks with the PKK through the HDP if he forms a coalition government following the recent general election.

After the beginning of the Arab Spring in early 2011, Turkey’s Middle East policy gave too much credit to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. It failed to foresee that the rise of even more radical, al-Qaeda affiliated groups could one day emerge to hurt itself. The eventual ouster of Morsi in Egypt in a Saudi-backed coup, as well as Bashar al-Assad’s defiance backed by Russia and Iran, was not properly calculated by the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu administration.

There will soon be a new government in Turkey, in which the AK Parti will not be the only power. Turkish foreign policy is therefore likely to see a change, especially on Syria and Egypt.