Turkey being sidelined on Syria

Turkey being sidelined on Syria

The U.S.-initiated talks in Doha aimed at trying to establish an alternative setup to the present Syrian National Council (SNC) – which has proven to be out of touch and useless – is not the best news for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

This is another concrete sign that their Syrian policy has failed, despite all the talk of “Turkey’s rising regional influence.” We are a far cry from the heady days when Davutoğlu insisted that Turkey would be “the main game-setter in Syria.”

The Syrian crisis has made a sham of that, leaving Turkey in the back seat while regional powers (Egypt and Iran) and global powers (The U.S. and Russia) have started to emerge as the countries that are likely to determine the outcome in that country.

There also appears to be an indirect message for the Erdoğan government in the fact that Washington is spearheading the search for a new leadership for the Syrian opposition that is more representative of the population and less Islamist in appearance.

The increase in Jihadist elements in Syria – and reports that Turkey has become a conduit for them – are not things that are likely to please Washington either. The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) heavy leanings towards the Sunni “Islamic Brotherhood” to the exclusion of others has also not gone unnoticed.

Washington clearly feels the need for a new leadership setup for Syria that includes Alawites, Kurds, Christians and secular Syrians who oppose radical Islamists. There is no guarantee that it will succeed, of course. This is why it no doubt expects Ankara to use its influence over the present SNC leadership to prevent it from being a spoiler in Doha.

The U.S. obviously does not want to have anything to do with al-Assad. But it is also becoming clear that Washington is not after a “de-Baathification” like it was in Iraq. Turkey, however, remains opposed to Baathist elements. It is also obvious that when PM Erdoğan talks of “the will of the Syrian people,” he is referring to the majority Sunnis. Ankara’s strong support for the Islamic Brotherhood has also tarnished the Erdoğan government’s image in the region among countries and communities that are not Sunni.

Gone are the days when Erdoğan was a hero for all Muslims – regardless of sect – because of his abrasive stand against Israel. Today Syrian Alawites and Christians, Tehran, the Maliki government in Baghdad, and the Lebanese Hezbollah all look on Erdoğan and Davutoğlu with growing suspicion and animosity.

Even post-revolutionary Egypt has given signs that it is not prepared to let Turkey be the “big brother” of a predominantly Arab Middle East. Ankara has lost all the advantages of being a neutral regional player – and a soft power – that it had only a few years ago.

 Sunni’s, radical or otherwise, still expect Turkey’s support against their enemies in Israel, Iraq, Syria or elsewhere of course. It is clear however that there are regional and global powers that want to see a different setup to what Ankara wants in Syria.

The Erdoğan government will of course continue to put a brave face on and insist that they are seriously involved in the U.S. initiative in Doha. Washington, for its part, will continue to laud “the important role Turkey is playing in the region,” for a host of objective reasons that make it crucial to maintain good ties with Ankara.

The emerging picture, however, shows a Turkey that is increasingly being sidelined in efforts to solve the Syrian crisis, despite the fact that it is one of the countries that is most affected by it. Whether this will lead to a revision in the Erdoğan government’s Syria policy, however, remains to be seen.