Erdogan’s Last Gamble

Turkey faces the pressure to intervene into Syria -- while the military puts on the brakes.

In December 1944, Adolf Hitler launched a massive offensive in the Ardennes in an attempt to stave off the inevitable, and there is every sign that Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has the same in mind.

Turkish foreign policy under the direction of the dyad Davutoglu and Erdogan has suffered a resounding defeat, particularly in Syria. Professor Ahmet Davutoglu, first as Erdogan’s foreign policy advisor, then as foreign minister and now as prime minister, has nourished Erdogan’s folie de grandeur with his vision of the restoration of Turkey’s role as the leader of the former Ottoman empire. However, this policy has seriously backfired, resulting in what another of Erdogan’s advisors, Ibrahim Kalin, plaintively called Turkey’s “precious loneliness.”  

Turkey’s plans to create a Middle East free-trade zone, including Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, met with a setback with the civil uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2011, which later developed into a civil war. In accordance with what Ibrahim Kalin termed Turkey’s new “value-based and principled” foreign policy, Turkey under Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) government chose to be a party to the conflict to effect regime change rather than adhere to Turkey’s traditional role as mediator.

In a Q&A session last October at Harvard, Vice President Joe Biden let the cat out of the bag when he claimed that U.S. allies – Turkey, the Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. – were their largest problem in Syria, as they supplied Al Nusra, Al Qaeda and other extremist jihadis with hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons. His spokeswoman later came with a retraction that the Veep had not implied that Turkey or other allies and partners in the region had “intentionally” facilitated the growth of ISIL or other violent extremists in Syria, but the damage had been done.

Now the gloves are off, and Barack Obama has openly criticized Turkey for not having ramped up the capacity it needs to prevent the influx of foreign fighters into Syria. At a State Department briefing a month ago, it was stated that Turkey was the main transit route for more than 22,000 fighters who have joined extremist organizations, mostly ISIL, in Syria. As a senior State Department official concluded: “Turkey wants to get a handle on this.”

There is also abundant evidence of Turkey’s cooperation with ISIL, the Al Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and other extremist groups, militarily, logistically and financially, and the role played by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), whose head, Hakan Fidan, was handpicked by Erdogan for the job. 

In August 2012 Davutoglu called on the U.N. Security Council to establish a safe zone in Syria for refugees, which would also have meant a no-fly zone, but without success. NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, has also stated that Turkey’s proposal is not on NATO’s agenda. Nevertheless, Davutoglu continues to revisit the idea, and once again the U.S. has refused to be drawn.  

The reason the issue has arisen is because ISIL has been driven from the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad by the Kurdish PYG (People’s Protection Units), the military wing of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), backed by U.S. air support. Erdogan, who has equated the PYD with Turkey’s PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) as a terrorist organization, has declared Turkey will never allow the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria, “no matter what the cost.”

Davutoglu, who is the leader of an interim AKP government, is prepared to take “the necessary measures” to prevent this, which could include a cross-border operation to create a buffer zone on the Syrian side, which would drive a wedge between two of the three autonomous cantons the PYD has already established.

The Turkish military has warned against the international repercussions of such a move, and the risk that Turkish forces would face a clash with the PYG, ISIL and Syrian government forces. The PKK’s military commander, Murat Karayilan, has also warned that a decision to attack the Kurdish cantons would amount to an attack on all Kurdish people. “Such an intervention would be an intervention that takes Turkey to civil war.”

However, Davutoglu has ruled out immediate plans for an incursion into Syria. Now he has to form a coalition government, either with the secular CHP (Republican People’s Party) or the nationalist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), which is adamantly opposed to the Kurdish peace process and supports the idea of a safe zone in Syria.

Erdogan’s last hope is the failure to form a coalition or the coalition’s collapse, which will lead to a new election and the possibility of regaining control of events. In a tape of a national security meeting leaked before Turkish local elections in March last year, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu complained that national security had become the tool of common, cheap domestic policy. The risk still remains.

Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.