AKP needs new approach to Middle East

AKP needs new approach to Middle East

Over two years have elapsed since the Syrian uprising began, yet Bashar al-Assad remains in power defying all of Turkey’s expectations. Ankara continues to insist that Assad must go but is seen to have no real answer to how this conflagration on its borders is to be doused. The meeting in Istanbul on April 23 by the core members of the “Friends of Syria” Group, on the other hand, produced nothing noteworthy.

Meanwhile the number of Syrians taking refuge in Turkey has reached at least 300,000, according to the International Crisis Group, which, in its latest report named “Blurring the Borders: Syrian Spillover Risks for Turkey,” predicts that “this number could triple this year and prove unsustainable.”

Ankara’s inability to find a new approach to the crisis, when combined with the widespread belief in Turkey and the region that the Erdoğan government has been pursuing a Sunni based policy in Syria, is also continuing to fuel anti-Turkish sentiments among Shiites across the region.

The Turkish media does not appear to see it as worth reporting on. but family members of Lebanese Shiites abducted by the Syrian opposition elements nearly a year ago near Aleppo, as they were trying to return to their country after a pilgrimage to Iran, continue to protest outside the Turkish Embassy and Turkish Airlines office in Beirut.

They are accusing Turkey of not doing enough to secure the release of their loved ones with some even suggesting that Ankara is somehow complicit in these abductions because of its support of the Sunni-led Syrian opposition. The Erdoğan government says it is doing all it can to help but has failed to convince the Shiite community in Lebanon of its sincerity so far.

The abduction on April 22 of Pavlos Yazici, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop for Aleppo and Iskenderun, and Yuhanna Ibrahim, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, and again in Aleppo, will also turn eyes to Turkey. While it is not clear who did the abducting, the automatic assumption will be that it was a radical Islamic group supported directly or indirectly by Ankara.

There is, in other words, a public relations disaster developing in the Middle East for the Erdogan government. After coming to power in 2002, and particularly after Ahmet Davutoğlu was appointed Foreign Minister in May 2009, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) reached out to the Middle East making no sectarian distinctions.

The simplistic perception the AKP tried to spread was that Turkey was reestablishing ties with this predominantly Islamic region that was neglected by secularist Kemalist governments, and which wants Muslim Turkey in its fold as a leading power.

But as the true fault lines of the Middle East started to emerge it also emerged that there was much about the region that the AKP did not factor in.

According to the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, the bulk of the world’s estimated 120 million Shiites live in the Middle East. They make up 90 percent of Iran’s, 75 percent of Bahrain’s and close to 60 percent of Iraq’s population, while Lebanon is primarily Shiite. Influential Shiite communities are also spread across the Gulf region.

Given such figures it is clear that the Erdoğan government has to go back to the drawing board to fashion new approaches that will enable Turkey to be seen as a force for good by everyone in the Middle East. Otherwise Turkey is unlikely to be considered a friendly country by millions of people who are also Muslim.

This is why it is time for Prime Minister Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to put aside their Sunni tinted Islamist glasses and come up with new and convincing approaches that are impartial, and make Turkey a unifying regional power that is contributing to stability across ethnic and sectarian divides.