The challenge facing Davutoğlu

The challenge facing Davutoğlu

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made some important remarks to senior Turkish reporters and editors accompanying him at the G-20 Summit in Brisbane. He is sticking to a fervently anti-al-Assad policy in Syria and is hopeful of pulling U.S. President Barack Obama to his side.      
A CNN report recently claimed that the Obama administration is close to reassessing its Syria policy to make the al-Assad regime a priority target again. This must have also encouraged Davutoğlu. His remarks, as reported by Hürriyet Editor-in-Chief Sedat Ergin, also suggest that Washington is moving in that direction.

Davutoğlu believes the real obstacle to peace in Syria is Bashar al-Assad, who must be gotten rid of. “Get rid of al-Assad and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) becomes easier” - this is his rationale.

Despite Davutoğlu’s optimism, it is not certain what the Obama administration will do. What is clear, though, is that it is not keen on slackening the fight against ISIL.

Statements in Washington refuting the CNN claim, on the other hand, show that even if there is a search for new options, nothing immediate should be expected.

Davutoğlu also says that a change in U.S. policy requires time. But the possibility that Washington will keep ISIL a top priority, and defer from going after al-Assad, remains high. The question is how much longer Turkey can cling to its policies which have produced few results over the past three years.

Davutoğlu is concerned now about the fate of Aleppo. If the city comes under al-Assad’s control, and many claim it will, then Ankara’s Syria policy will receive another blow, while al-Assad consolidates his position. Davutoğlu justifiably fears that Turkey will also face another flood of refugees.

But things remain complicated for Turkey on the diplomatic front. Apart from the differences with Washington, Moscow also continues to thwart Ankara’s plans in Syria and is looking now to revive the Geneva process again. Moscow also says the al-Assad regime should be at the table. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Davutoğlu oppose this, as they do any suggestion that legitimizes al-Assad.

Put briefly, Ankara’s Syria policy remains out of tune at best and seriously at odds otherwise with the key international players in this crisis. Turkey’s position on Egypt is no better. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu hate Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for toppling the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi, but el-Sisi continues to gain international recognition despite his despotic policies. 

He also has strong political, military, and economic support from Arab regimes that despise the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, however, remain close to the brotherhood, and this has not endeared them to the region’s ruling elites. Ankara’s reputation with the Sunni powers that it had good ties with until a few years ago has been harmed because of this.

It is not clear how Davutoğlu plans to break Turkey out of its weak diplomatic position, and convince its Western allies, as well as the Middle East’s ruling elite, to follow Ankara’s lead on key issues relating to the region. Ankara is currently not on the same page with its Western allies, or potential allies in the region, on these issues, let alone the differences with rivals.

The real challenge for Davutoğlu now is to look at developments from a reverse angle in order to try and understand realistically what will not be happening in the Middle East in the foreseeable future, and to work to secure Turkey’s best interests from that vantage point. What he wants to see happening appears a long shot for today.