Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan and Assad

In his latest duplicitous showing, Turkey’s Erdogan appears to be toughening his stance on Syria, just as Western powers are softening theirs, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly


“If Al-Assad had a grain of love for Syria and its people, he would step down and leave,” so said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His remarks were taken as a reflection of the extreme discomfort Ankara is feeling with regard to developments in the Syrian crisis.

European and American capitals, which were once as resolute as Ankara that Al-Assad had to go, have recently begun to soften their positions. It increasingly looks like they might be flexible enough to include him as an active party in a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis.

In other words, something is shifting in the balances of powers that could make it possible for Al-Assad to remain ensconced in his Damascene bastion until further notice, at least until the arrangements for an interim phase are hammered out.

True, Anatolian politicians are determined to appear as firm and unwavering in their resolve as ever. In his speech on the second day of the Feast of Sacrifice, Erdogan proclaimed that his country’s position towards its Syrian neighbour had not altered one bit from the policy he set when he was prime minister.
But realities tell otherwise. It is palpably evident to all in Turkey that this policy has proved a consummate failure. It is clear that the government of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) should have and could have avoided the precipitous slide into the Syrian quagmire.

With Erdogan at the helm, this was not to be, and now the whole of Turkish society is paying the price, politically, economically and socially. As the Turkish public is painfully aware, their country’s international reputation has plummeted in part due to its Syrian policy.
Influential quarters in Europe and the US have come to regard Ankara with suspicion for the role it played in creating an erroneous perception of conditions in Syria following the eruption of anti-regime protests in March 2011. Ankara is seen as responsible for creating the impression that Al-Assad and his Baathist machine would be gone before the first year of the war was out.

Therefore, Erdogan’s remarks on the occasion of the Islamic holiday last week were little more than an exercise in rhetoric and appearances. He needed to strike the pose of the undefeated, of a leader who has not betrayed his people’s trust.
He hopes to cut off avenues of attack from his adversaries (of which he has succeeded in creating quite a few). These are fraught times as the country prepares for early general elections set for 1 November.

As for the people themselves, the majority dismiss most of what Erdogan says, having had a surfeit of his contradictions and unfulfilled pledges. As he has said over and over, “It would be impossible to rescue Syria as long as Al-Assad remains,” and, “The opposition will never agree to a solution in which Al-Assad plays a part.”
He has refused to heed voices that urge “avoiding the pursuit of emotional idealistic policies that were unsuited to the realities and circumstances in the Middle East.” Instead, he heard a voice of his own that led him to say, in 2012, “We will be going into Syria soon, and we will pray at the Ummayid Mosque.”

 However, after four years of the gruelling civil war in Syria, he has finally been forced to bow to the facts, to cede to an international mood opposed to military intervention. As he now says, “We have no problem with the Syrian interior, but Al-Assad and the world should not forget that we have a 911 kilometre-long border, that we face a constant threat from terrorist organisations and that there are limits to our patience.”

Yes, the mask has begun to crack. The real face is beginning to emerge of a prime minister turned president whose government is strongly suspected of aiding and abetting jihadist takfiri organisations in Syria, and whose “zero problems” strategy has led to zero relations with most of Turkey’s neighbours.

To conceal his humiliation in the face of the collapse of his Syrian “vision”, he has had little to fall back on but stock phrases regarding the commitment to Syrian territorial integrity. There was also the pledge to help Syrians regain areas free of terrorist organisations through the creation of a “safe zone” to which Syrian refugees in Turkey could return.

He unveiled this idea in June. It entailed creating a 110 kilometre-long and 22 to 33 kilometre-deep buffer zone inside Syria, along the border from Karkamis to Oncupinar, and sending some 18,000 Turkish troops into Syria for two years.

He could feel it in his bones that he could succeed in this and that he could go it alone if the international community rejected the idea that is reminiscent of the buffer zone that Israel created in southern Lebanon.
Naturally, all this turned out to be yet another undeliverable promise. The White House was firmly opposed. Nor was it prepared to so much as hint at a possible wink of approval, even after Erdogan performed that U-turn on the Incirlik Air Force Base and put it at the disposal of the international coalition, after having long refused to do so.
That put a spanner in his plans for a military intervention that would prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Syria adjacent to the Turkish border.

Nor did his setbacks end there. The Obama administration also refused to brand the Kurdish Peoples Defence Units (YPG) in Syria as a terrorist organisation. Indeed, Washington praised the YPG for their courage and persistence in the war against the Islamic State (IS) group, which has become the common enemy of the US and the Kurds. That IS is an enemy of Tehran, Moscow and Damascus is a situation that favours Bashar Al-Assad, whose political star has begun to rise again as that of his adversary to the north wanes.

It was no coincidence that Erdogan met with the Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamed Al-Thani in Istanbul last Friday, and that Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Had Sinirlioglu met with his Qatari counterpart Khaled Atiya the previous day on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

Naturally, the Syrian crisis was the focus of their talks. One wonders whether they hit upon a face-saving solution to the problem they themselves have created.

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