Turkey’s Syria Policy Coming Full Circle

October 10, 2017

The Syrian conflict is in its seventh year and much has changed after the Russian intervention. Gone are the days of the Friends of Syria Group meetings and international coalitions targeting regime change. This Group was formed after Russia and China, in the light of the Libya experience, vetoed a UN Security Council resolution intended to pave the way for another Western intervention. The Group held its first meeting in Tunis on February 24, 2012. On April 1st, 2012, it met for the second time in Istanbul.

Later that month, the then Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu delivered a major foreign policy speech in the parliament. Emphasizing the genuine desire for change underlying the Arab spring, he said that attempts to explain the current developments with plans imposed from abroad and external conspiracies were first and foremost an insult to the honorable peoples of the region.

Here are a few passages from his address:

“The Friends of the Syrian Group represents the conscience of the international community and it was formed as a result of our determined efforts… We organized the second meeting in Istanbul with the participation of 83 countries and international organizations. It’s clear that these 83 nations did not come here to say ‘let’s keep the Assad regime in place’… As Turkey, we shall continue to direct and lead the massive wave of change in the Middle East. Among the peoples of the region Turkey is seen not only as a friend and a brother but also as the leader of a new and powerful vision to shape the future, create a new regional order… Lastly, I wish to stress the following: A new Middle East is being born. We shall continue to be the owner, the leader and the steward of this new Middle East”.

The contrast between the foregoing and today’s realities unmistakably show that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (JDP) foray into the Syrian conflict has been the most disastrous strategic blunder in the history of the Republic. Today, contradicting what Mr. Davutoglu had said about Arab spring developments, all our failures are attributed to foreign meddling, external conspiracies and “higher minds which are determined to prevent Turkey’s rise as a global power”. At odds with all regional powers except Qatar Ankara can’t possibly claim to lead the Middle East. With its democracy in decline it can no longer inspire peoples yearning for a better future. Its endeavors for regime change in Damascus have been replaced by desperate attempts to maintain the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq. The overbearing talk about entering Idlib or Afrin cannot camouflage this reality. At any rate, ousting Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) from Idlib and enforcing the de-escalation arrangements agreed at Astana is a daunting task. Because, apart from questions of military coordination, separating the “moderate opposition” from the “terrorists” has always been a difficult issue ever since the United States and the Russian Federation, Co-Chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), issued the “Joint Statement on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria” on February 22, 2017 (*). Full agreement between the Assad regime, Russia, Iran and Turkey on this point was quite unlikely unless Ankara accepted to follow Moscow’s lead which at present seems to be the case. Because, despite its on and off references to the “moderate opposition” Russia is more prone to consider almost all armed anti-regime groups as terrorists. In brief, Ankara no longer sees President Assad as number one public enemy but someone with whom it has no other choice but to cooperate. Thus, we are back where we were six years ago with mutual affection missing.  But, there is more. With millions displaced and mostly settled in Turkey, with billions of taxpayers’ money invested in a cause that is no longer attainable, this adventure has also resulted in yielding Turkey’s regional security to overpowering interests and agendas of Russia and Iran, not to mention the US.

Ankara, through a string of mistakes, has put itself in a narrow alley on Syria. It has little choice but to keep struggling forward hoping that things would somehow work out. And, there is precious little advice to offer on the current situation except drawing attention to the risks of too many zig-zags which have already led to loss of credibility which may not be retrieved for many years to come. However, there is the broad question of Turkey’s relations with the world and that is an area where one can say a lot. At present Ankara has no friends who can make a difference on important issues confronting us. Its relations with Washington are at an all-time low. Relations with Europe are no better. Relations with Russia are far from being fully restored. It seems that the purchase of S-400 missile systems is more of a political statement than a genuine measure to bolster Turkey’s air defense. And, relations with regional countries remain problematic.

Defying the world for the sake of domestic politics is not a sustainable policy and persisting may further isolate Turkey, raising the price tag. Ankara needs to understand that this policy has led us to a dead-end and a comprehensive effort for the restoration of Turkey’s relations with its traditional friends and allies is long overdue.

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(*) Syria: “Cessation of Hostilities”, February 29, 2016

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About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions he held in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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