Understanding the failure of Erdoğan’s Syria and Egypt policies

Understanding the failure of Erdoğan’s Syria and Egypt policies

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has reacted strongly against U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments about the eventuality of coming to terms with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to end the civil war there. In response, Çavuşoğlu asked Kerry what was the point in talking to a ruler who has turned his country into ruins throughout the conflict, which has been going on for more than four years, leading to more than 200,000 people being killed and millions fleeing.

Kerry also made the Turkish government angry last week when he praised the reforms of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who overthrew the elected President Mohamed Morsi (of the Muslim Brotherhood) in 2013. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu denounce el-Sisi and Assad on every possible occasion, regardless of the fact that they are alone in doing that.

Kerry’s remarks coincide with a number of U.S.-origin editorials and reports accusing Turkey of drifting from the Western military alliance NATO, not only regarding its policy linking the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to the fight in Syria but also because of its stance regarding Russia on the Ukraine crisis.

There is something wrong with Turkish policy in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. Up until five or six years ago, Turkey was mediating between Israel and Syria and getting into a strategic partnership with Egypt. Today it doesn’t have an ambassador in any of the three countries.

The failure is not a tactical one. Rather, it is strategic, as the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Parti) foreign policy for the region - shaped by Erdoğan and Davutoğlu - was to form a Sunni triangle with three power centers in Ankara, Damascus and Cairo.

Cairo was not under democratic rule under Hosni Mubarak and Damascus was not even under Sunni rule. Al-Assad was the symbol of a Nusayri/Alevi autocracy over a Sunni majority even at a time when Erdoğan was calling him “my brother,” while also holding joint cabinet meetings and taking family holidays together.

The Erdoğan-Davutoğlu strategy was to turn both Mubarak and al-Assad over to democratic rule through free elections, like the one in Turkey that brought the AK Parti to power. The hope was for such elections to bring Muslim Brotherhood-linked governments to power in Egypt and Syria, which could then cooperate with Ankara for regional supremacy over other parties.

The Arab Spring caught the AK Parti off guard, just like many other governments. But gradually in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, and with Hamas in Gaza, the AK Parti started to see new opportunities that could perhaps speed up its strategy: Muslim governments taking over through democratic means, heralding a new regional order. That was the reason why Ankara resisted a Libya-style NATO sponsored operation in Syria at first; Erdoğan and Davutoğlu were hoping to convince al-Assad to hold free elections. When al-Assad turned them down, the AK Parti made a sharp turn, thinking that al-Assad could be gone in a few months’ time (that was in the fall of 2011), with the diplomatic and military backing of the U.S.-led coalition. When that did not happen, Russia was there to fill the gap.

But Ankara did not give up so quickly. Morsi won the elections in Egypt in 2012 and a Muslim Brotherhood-linked government was in power in Cairo. Erdoğan could not see the details, but Egypt’s Brotherhood government was eventually toppled in a Saudi Arabia-backed coup in 2013. Erdoğan also ignored friendly warnings about the alarming change in the nature of the Syrian opposition - from the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood, into al-Qaeda, and finally ISIL.

Now that Ankara’s Brotherhood-focused line in Syria is reflected in the Iraqi theater in the form of sectarian concern against Iran-backed Shiite movements who are actually fighting in the field against ISIL forces, together with the Iraqi army and the Kurds.

In his statement responding to Kerry, Çavuşoğlu warns its biggest ally, the U.S., about the rise of a Shiite wave in Iraq, which he says “contributed to the rise of ISIL because of the pressure on Sunnis.”

There might be some truth in this warning, but it also signals that the AK Parti government has no intention of revising its foreign policy, which has been alienating Turkey in the region since the start of the Arab Spring.