Turkey follows where others lead

Turkey follows where others lead

Efforts to solve the Syrian crisis have taken a new turn with the agreement reached between Washington and Moscow for Syria’s chemical weapons, which Bashar al-Assad has also accepted. Of course the deal only concerns chemical weapons and does not aim to end the civil war. It is nevertheless clear that diplomacy, which has Assad as an interlocutor one way or another, will now take precedence over any military option.

This is not what Ankara wanted. Its desire is to see Assad replaced by a new government based on general elections. In a Sunni majority country it is not hard to see who Turkey expects to win such elections. But this clearly not going to happen given the complex ethnic, religious and sectarian demography of Syria, and Ankara has little choice but to go along with any arrangement worked out by the U.S. and Russia.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was in Paris yesterday, on the invitation of U.S. Secretary of State to John Kerry, where he was undoubtedly informed about the latest deal for Syria and asked to support it. Washington clearly expects Turkey to convince the Syrian opposition – which has rejected the deal with Assad – even if it does not believe in this deal itself.

Davutoğlu was already in a difficult position diplomatically in Paris because of his initial negative reaction to the Russian proposal which resulted in the deal worked out with the U.S. Terming the Russian proposal “cosmetic,” Davutoğlu said it would buy time for Assad to carry out new massacres. 

This is unlikely to have gone down well in Moscow, and will influence Ankara’s ability to have an input in diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian civil war. Meanwhile Davutoğlu has been left with little choice but to tone down his criticism of the U.S.-Russian plan.

With most of his predictions about Syria having turned out wrong, one would have thought that Davutoğlu would be more cautious before belittling the Russian proposal. There are serious questions being asked now about his competence given that few of his expectations and predictions as foreign minister have come to pass.

Prime Minister Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are so committed politically to the toppling of Assad that the real dynamics involving Syria have defied their understanding of the situation in that country from the start. This is why Ankara was caught unprepared once again with the latest Russian proposal. 

The simple fact is that Turkey is no longer a proactive actor in the Syrian crisis but a reactive one trying to respond to events as they unfold, with little ability to steer matters in the direction it desires. It is equally doubtful that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s desires for Egypt will come to pass. 

It appears very unlikely that ousted President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood government will be reinstated. The simple fact is that the military regime in Cairo has much more support from regional powers than Ankara ever expected. 

Given this overall situation one would have thought that the Erdoğan government would want to readjust its foreign policy toward the Middle East according to the facts on the ground rather than blue prints drawn up in Ankara. The fact that this is not happening points to more isolation for Turkey in the region where its ability to play a decisive role has been seriously eroded. 

The bottom line in all this is that the Middle East has turned out to be a far more complex place than the Erdoğan government expected or imagined, despite its initial claim knowing the region best for historic, cultural and religious reasons. That is clearly seen now not to be the case. Turkey today is merely following where others lead.