A welcome adjustment to Syrian policy

A welcome adjustment to Syrian policy

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is under intense criticism from the opposition, following his meeting last week with President Obama in the White House, over what is widely seen as his failure to convince Washington over Syria and the resulting “about turn” in Ankara’s Syria policy.

Coming around to what the opposition has been saying for some time, after months of stubborn resistance, would land any politician in an embarrassing situation, of course. But that is all politics, at the end of the day, and it is best to look at the matter in hand from the perspective of what is best for Turkey in the first instance, and then the region in the second.

Ankara has been flogging a dead horse on Syria for over two years now. It has been unable to convince its closest allies to topple Bashar al-Assad through military means, at least by providing weapons to the opposition if direct intervention is not possible. Ankara has also been unsuccessful in its calls for a no fly zone in Syrian airspace to protect civilians against attacks from al-Assad’s forces, as it has been in its calls for a safe haven, again on the Syrian side of the border, for refugees.

The calculations initially made in Ankara concerning Syria have, in other words, proved to be out of touch with the basic facts that govern the Syrian crisis. Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu are complaining bitterly today over having been left alone against al-Assad by the international community, as they put it. To be left alone in the way they are complaining of, however, requires you to have been promised something in the first place.

That never was the case and morally browbeating others for not supporting you on what you may term as a “humanitarian mission” may sound good for one’s constituents, and political supporters, but cannot be expected to change the situation on the ground in the international arena much. This is a fact of international relations, whether we like it or not.

The Turkish public, even many supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), now see that Ankara’s Syria policy has started to have a heavy toll on Turkey, and the Reyhanlı massacre is a tragic harbinger in this respect. The public also sees that no matter how much Erdoğan and Davutoğlu may vilify and demonize al-Assad and his regime, the Syrian dictator and his visibly brutal military have been proved to have staying power.

The glaring truth Erdoğan was therefore confronted with in Washington was that rowing against the current is merely increasing the security threat to Turkey, leaving the government with only one option; namely, to change tack and opt for a negotiated settlement to the crisis through an international conference that includes all interested parties

Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic was as unsavory and inhuman a character as al-Assad is. But this did not prevent him from being one of the key players during the Dayton talks in 1995 that finally ended the Bosnian war. This did not protect Milosevic from being indicted as a war criminal in the end, and being sent to The Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity, of course.

Even if al-Assad is involved somehow in the Geneva conference, which is planned to take place in early June, there is still a good chance that he too will have to answer for his crimes one day. He is still young and will be hounded for years to come. But that is for another day, and Erdoğan appears to have acknowledged the facts as they stand today. This is why he is now openly supporting a political settlement to the Syrian civil war.

Both Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are missionaries in their own right. They have grand schemes to combat injustice, particularly where these affect Muslim communities in the West, and Sunni communities in the Islamic world. That is all very well and may even be seen as commendable, but there is a big bad world out there where national interests always seem to come first.