Turkey’s Mistakes in Syria and Ensuing Crises

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Gholamali Khoshroo
Senior Editor and vice president of the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Islam

When Turkey acted on the basis of its foreign policy principle of “minimizing problems with neighbors to zero,” Iran, Turkey and Syria had very amicable neighborly relations. The question is: what has happened in the past two years which has turned Turkey’s regional policy into a policy which is fomenting various kinds of tension with Ankara’s neighbors? Was the quality of Syrian government different before the ongoing crisis broke out? Have there been any substantial changes in Iran and its regional policies during the past three years? The answer is no. Iran's foreign policy has not been diverted from its right path, neither toward Turkey, nor with regard to Syria. Iran has been maintaining cordial relations with Turkey and Syria for more than thirty years. During the difficult years of war with Iraq, Syria was among few Arab states which maintained their relations with Iran. Even during the past decade when Turkey improved its relations with Israel, as a result of which relations between Turkey and Syria became tense, Iran has been endeavoring to reduce tensions between the two countries.

Therefore, the main issue which has changed is the foreign policy of Turkey as a result of Ankara’s erroneous analysis of conditions in the region. When political developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya led to rapid changes of government in those countries, Turkey moved fast to redefine its regional role. As a result, after the beginning of the unrest in Syria, Ankara took a hostile and interventionist position on the Syria crisis. Although the intervention was first covered under a humanitarian guise and could have actually benefited the interests of the Syrian people, later developments showed that Turkey has been imagining that with the change of government in Syria and emergence of a new government close to Turkey, Ankara would be able to increase its influence in the region. As a result, Turkey, which was impressed by political developments in North Africa and the general idea that those countries were inspired by the Turkey’s political model, started to swerve from its pragmatic and mercantilist policy and was gradually drifted away by empire-building dreams.

Two years after the beginning of crisis in Syria, this is now an undeniable reality that Turkey’s expectation for the rapid downfall of the Syrian regime has been clearly a misunderstanding. Turkey made a U-turn in its foreign policy and ignored good neighborly relations as well as international regulations in order to secure a foothold in future Syria by supporting the insurgents fighting against the incumbent Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s government. If developments in Syria had reached a rapid conclusion, as Turkey expected, Ankara would have been the biggest winner. In military and intelligence terms, Turkey should not have made such a strategic mistake. However, instead of making efforts to correct that mistake, Ankara has been trying since that time to spread the crisis to the entire region. It is no honor for the statesmen of the great nation of Turkey to be proud of their secular – Islamic model of government, on the one hand, while attuning their regional policy to that of Qatar by equipping and organizing the most extremist and violent groups, and sending them to war in Syria, on the other hand. Now when you go to Turkey, instead of seeing Western tourists at Istanbul bazaar, you see Arab terrorists who are making preparations and getting their militants ready for more war and bloodletting.

Therefore, Turkey is the main factor behind radicalization of the ongoing crisis in Syria. Ankara has frequently encouraged the United States and the European Union to get involved in the crisis, and has caused division among members of the United Nations Security Council in order to pave the way for international intervention in Syria. When failed to do so, Ankara came up with plans to Balkanize the Syria crisis. By resorting to any means, it has paved the way for the presence of NATO in the region and asked NATO to deploy Patriot missile systems along its southern border with Syria. On the other hand, it has joined hands with Qatar and Saudi Arabia to send money and arms to insurgents in Syria. Such measures have caused coldness and even tension in Turkey’s relations with its neighbors, even with its biggest neighbor, Russia.

The scope of Turkey’s meddling in Syria has been extended to include Iraq. This has been the main reason behind the ongoing developments of Iraq and intensification of ethnic and religious conflicts in the Arab country has been blamed on Turkey. Establishing direct relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan region and lending support to Tariq Al-Hashimi, the deposed Iraqi vice president, who is being prosecuted on charges of fostering terrorism in Iraq, are signs of Turkey’s intervention in the internal affairs of Iraq.

Turkey’s mistake, however, has caused Ankara major problems in foreign policy, in addition to facing the Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with important challenges inside the country.

The first of these problems which emanate from the meddling in the Syria crisis is Turkey’s problem with its Kurd population. Although that problem has been always facing Ankara, it has intensified as a result of the situation in Syria. The problem with Kurds has been one of the most important problems facing Turkey in the past decades. The collection of developments which have taken place in past weeks, especially government’s effort to engage in negotiations with the jailed Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, or the recent assassination of three female members of the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK) in Paris prove that this issue has come to the surface again and may cause more problem for Turkey as a challenge. This state of affairs is the outcome of developments in the situation of Syrian Kurds. Continuation of this situation or its expansion can lead to the intensification of the crisis involving Turkey’s Kurdish population. Another problem with which the government of Erdogan has been grappling is increasing opposition from the country’s Alawite population. There are about 20 million Alawites living in Turkey who are currently disenchanted with the policy of the Turkish government toward Syria that is marked by sectarian and ethnic prejudices. During the past months, this factor has been added to other causes of dissent and opposition in Turkey.

In addition, disagreement of the Turkish businesspeople and the middle class with Turkey’s meddling in Syria should be also taken into consideration. For this group, the main goal is continued boom in economy and trade and, therefore, they are dissatisfied with the status quo because some regions have become insecure and the public opinion is concerned about a possible war. Therefore, according to the latest figures, about 75 percent of the Turkish people are against their country’s intervention in the internal affairs of Syria. An Islamist government which rose to power through the votes of the Turkish people after successfully restricting the traditional power of the military is now organizing the Free Syrian Army to fight against the government of a neighboring country and is, thus, facing the threat of losing its power base among the Turkish people.

Another issue which many analysts consider to be a serious threat to Syria is growth of extremism in the region. Syria is currently a hub for terrorists and extremist Islamists as well as Salafi elements in the neighborhood of Turkey and there is no guarantee that the extremism will not spill over the border into Turkey. At the moment, the military, republicans, seculars and some elites inside Turkey are accusing the government of Prime Minister Erdogan with fanning the flames of crisis in Syria. They say Ankara is promoting a new form of extremism in the region which will also plague Turkey sooner or later.

As a result of the strategic mistake that the government of Erdogan has made with regard to crisis in Syria, Turkey is at present an unfortunate part of a belligerent front which is trying to counteract the regional influence of Iran, Shiism and the anti-Israeli resistance axis. Since the United States attacked Afghanistan and Iraq, there has been a concern at the regional level that regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq will disturb the strategic balance in the region giving Iran the upper hand among regional countries. Israel and Saudi Arabia have been more concerned about this issue and have, therefore, spared no effort to contain Iran, Shiism and the anti-Israel resistance axis. The developments in the past two years, unfortunately, prove that Turkey has been getting close to anti-Iran front.

The best way for Turkey is to pay more attention to the realities on the ground following two years of crisis and give up military, intelligence and security intervention in Syria in favor of a political solution which would include rejection of terrorism and promotion of Syria reforms. In this case, it would be possible to find a solution to crisis in Syria while diminishing tensions in relations among Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Russia, and also to find a solution to domestic problems with which Turkey is currently grappling. Now that foreign troops have started to withdraw from the region after many years of unwanted presence, Turkey should not invite them back into the region and unknowingly provide grounds for possible disintegration of regional countries and further growth of extremism and terrorism. Iran has always sought close relations with Turkey. Therefore, Tehran is hoping that through a critical review of its foreign policy approaches in the past two years, Ankara would return to its previous deserved position of having cordial relations with all neighboring countries.

Key Words: Turkey’s Mistakes, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Foreign Policy Principle, NATO, Ethnic and Religious Conflicts, Kurd Population,  Khoshroo

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