Syria and the AKP’s “learning curve”

Syria and the AKP’s “learning curve”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s harsh words aimed at Russia and China, over their support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, indicate that the Syria issue is going to be one of the principle battlefields in the new East-West power struggle.

Statements emanating from Moscow and Beijing, on the other hand, show that these countries are even more determined to stick to their guns on Syria now. Bashar al-Assad is no doubt pleased over these developments, given that the global power struggle will enable him to stay in power longer than many expected.

One thing is becoming clearer as a result of all this. Even if we accept that al-Assad is on the way out, the new Syria is not going to be shaped according to the desires of the Friends of the Syrian People group, which met in Paris on Friday, and which Turkey has enthusiastically supported from the start. The new Syria is only going to emerge as a result of agreements arrived at between the sides in the new East-West struggle. Otherwise that country will remain the stage for the power struggle between superpowers, and also become a battlefield for externally supported radical Sunni and Shiite groups.

The Erdoğan government has from the beginning spearheaded the international campaign against the al-Assad regime. Angry remarks from a highly touchy Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu aimed at columnists and commentators who have been criticizing his government’s Syria policy, on the other hand, show just how much the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has personalized the Syria issue.

It is becoming clearer, however, that Turkey is not going to be one of the leading global actors that shape the new Syria, but merely a relatively important regional player. As such it is not just going to have to face Russia, which clearly is not prepared to give up on Syria, but also Iran, not to mention Shiite groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon. Put another way, the new Syria that emerges will not be one that is run exclusively by a Sunni-led Islamic Brotherhood-type regime, which is what the AKP obviously desires, but by a power-sharing arrangement which reflects the accords arrived at between the sides in the new East-West struggle.

That arrangement will also most likely preserve the Baathist secular nature of the administration, to protect Christian and other minorities. The West is overtly and Turkey covertly against Iran’s having a say in Syria, but it is likely that Tehran will not be entirely sidelined either in the long run, especially after having secured the support of Moscow and Beijing.

Another interesting point, as far as Turkey is concerned, is the fact that the AKP government set out to implement a unilateral and subjective policy towards Syria, which did not meet with the approval of its Western allies, but has now changed its tack completely. Ankara is not only acting multilaterally now but is also depending on its traditional Western allies, as well as NATO, in doing so. This is of course pleasing for those who felt Turkey was drifting away from the West with the advent of the pro-Islamic AKP.

Even if the AKP’s foreign policy has demonstrated tangible solidarity with Sunni countries and groups in the Middle East, this new situation is nevertheless unlikely to please radical Sunni groups within Turkey and the Middle East. As for radical Shiite countries and groups, they already see Turkey as “NATO’s instrument in the Middle East” due to Ankara’s Syria policy, and the fact that the AKP government has agreed to host radar systems for NATO’s defense shield against Iran.

A key message to come out of all this is that the Syrian crisis also represents a serious “learning curve” for the AKP government, given that the foreign policy it worked out on paper did not quite match the situation in the field.