The Turkish Role in the Syrian Civil War
When the top U.S. policymakers decided that the Syrian crisis required some international partner to deal with its challenges, the choice of the Obama-Clinton tandem fell on Turkey. Was this choice correct? The answer to this question is a complex one. The complexity stems from the different dimensions of the Turkish society and politics. In short, the U.S. treatment of Turkey as a traditional ally is right, while at the same time American reliance on the present Turkish government's policy with regard to Syria is wrong.
What neither Obama, nor Hillary Clinton grasped, or most probably deliberately ignored, was the fact that since 2003 Turkey has been ruled by the Justice and Development Party, which is an Islamic political organization. The long-term political goal and dream of its leader and the current Prime Minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan, is to Islamize his country. In order to achieve such an ambitious goal though, he needed to solve three main problems.
The first one was to eliminate the political role of the army which since the times of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Ataturk had played the role of the guarantor of the secular system. This nontraditional function of the armed forces was an important component of the secular political model that gradually transformed Turkey into the only Muslim country that fit many of the requirements of a Western-style democracy. The pro-Erdogan press helped him to eliminate this role of the army by accusing, rightly or wrongly, many of the commanding officers of creating highly controversial anti-government conspiracies.
The second challenge the Turkish Prime Minister was facing involved the improvement of the economy which for many years was lagging behind. The AKP government (the Turkish acronym for the ruling party), achieved its most stunning success by transforming Turkey into one of the very few countries which remained not only unaffected by the worldwide economic slowdown, but managed to achieve a remarkable growth.
The biggest achievement of Mr. Erdogan however, lies in the area of image building. His political mastery manifested itself in the ability to present himself like a leader who simultaneously is a deeply believing Muslim and a dedicated Democrat.
The clue to understanding such a brilliant achievement is Mr. Erdogan's successful strategy in making use of the sharp contradiction between the old-fashioned defenders of the political role of the army and the majority of the large pool of educated Turks who support the seemingly democratic trend of Erdogan's politics. At the same time, however, the same social group doesn't want to see the transformation of their country into an Islamic state.
As far as the Turkish policy with regard to Syria is concerned, in 2011 it performed an abrupt about face. At the time when the first anti-government demonstrations broke out in Syria, the Turkish-Syrian relations were at their best since the aftermath of WWI. Tayyip Erdogan and Bashir Assad seemed to be enjoying a friendship at the personal level as well. In early February of 2011 both statesmen appeared together in order to lay the foundations of the so-called "Dam of Friendship."
During the fall of 2011 the dam was still there, but friendship between the two statesmen had gone. What prompted the sudden change of heart of the Turkish leader? According to the official explanation due to the repressive nature of the Syrian regime, thousands of Syrians crossed the Turkish border in search of shelter and asylum. This circumstance forced Turkey to get interested in the search for options involving positive changes in the already badly bleeding Syria. There were, of course, far more important and deliberately obscured reasons for the change of the Turkish strategy in the area.
Starting with the psychological factors, similarly to President Obama, Prime Minister Erdogan was also firmly convinced that the downfall of the Assad regime was imminent.
Erdogan's pursuit of a strategy to obtain a leading role for Turkey in the emerging Saudi-Qatari led Arab anti-Assad, anti-Shia and anti-Iranian axis, was helped by the already existing Turkish connection with the Muslim Brotherhood. As a country sharing a long border with Syria, all supplies to the opponents of Assad must go through Turkey. Given that the adherence of radical Islam represents most of the resistance to the Assad forces, most probably the food, materials, and weaponry would end up in the hands of the Jihadists. The Turkish Prime Minister though wasn't disturbed by this fact because the replacement of the Assad regime by an Islamic government friendly to Turkey and dependent in many ways on it looked attractive to Erdogan.
The trend of events in Syria however developed on their own and in a completely unexpected way. In the long run it turned out that the actions of the Turkish government with regard to Syria gradually took the shape of a disastrous blunder which Erdogan is currently trying to repair.
To start with, the Syrian strategy of the Turkish Prime Minister brought about a lot of tension in the relationship of his country with Iran and Russia which he considered very important.
Another devastating development took place in the aftermath of the smart order Assad issued to his troops to evacuate the Kurdish-populated areas in Northern Syria. As a result those areas are currently patrolled by Kurdish paramilitary formations which are receiving a lot of weaponry smuggled from Iraqi Kurdistan. Within the framework of the increasingly probable scenario of the breakup of Syria, most certainly the Kurds will try to reach if not a formal statehood, then at least the creation of an autonomous area similar to the status of the Iraqi Kurdistan.
Last but not least, Erdogan's policy toward Syria is extremely unpopular in Turkey. According to the recent polls, 82% of the respondents expressed a negative attitude toward the government's policy on Syria. Those results reflect the belief that Erdogan's intent is to help establish an Islamic regime in Syria.
As far as the American attitude toward the civil war devastating Syria it is not based on an effective strategy, but rather on two constantly repeated mantras. The verbalization of the first one sounds like "Assad must go!" The second one goes "Russia is responsible for the continuation of the Syrian bloodshed!"
Without idealizing the policies of Russia, one thing about it is certain: Moscow does not want the creation on Syrian soil of a Jihadist state inspired by the ideology of radical Islam. Can any member of the Obama-Clinton-Kerry trio honestly say that he or she shares the same goal?
Georgy Gounev teaches the ideology and strategy of radical Islam in Southern California within the framework of the Emeritus program. He is also the author of The Dark Side of the Crescent Moon Foreign Policy Challenges, Laguna Woods, CA, 2011. The book explores the international impact of the Islamization of Europe. His website is foraff.org