Even as the Kremlin plays a more active role in the Middle East, Turkey remains unequivocal in its attempt to undermine Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, listens to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the opening ceremony of the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan on June 12. Photo: RIA Novosti
Turkey has been one of the most consistent supporters of revolutionary changes in the Middle East. Ever since November 2011, Ankara has been actively supporting regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, while in Syria it has taken almost the leading role in supporting rebels against the government of President Bashar Assad.
The logic of Turkey is only possible to understand by analyzing the origins of its current foreign policy strategy, which was created by the former head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and current Prime Minister of Turkey Ahmet Davutoglu. This strategy involves the expansion of Turkish influence in the post-Ottoman space, including the Arab world.
Many researchers have noted that the policy of active intervention by Turkey in the political process in the Middle East is in conflict with the strategy “zero problems with neighbors” that Davutoglu developed.
Making “Zero Problems With Neighbors” a reality
The term “zero problems with neighbors” has been promoted by journalists to describe the concept of Davutoglu described in the book “Strategic Depth” and in the articles written by the politician. “Zero problems” is instrumental in nature, and is just one of the means to be used to achieve the main goal – the expansion of Turkish influence in the Middle East and North Africa.
Secular, authoritarian, and closely connected with military circles, regimes in these countries are similar in their genesis with the Turkish heritage of the first president of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Ataturk after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and Erdogan sought to subdue these.
In contrast, the main revolutionary forces in the region became organizations, in one way or another, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ideology is close to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party of Turkey.
Therefore, revolutions were perceived as a positive change from regimes not sufficiently ideologically loyal to Turkey, to potentially more friendly ones, ready to exploit the Turkish experience of successful political and economic reforms, and thus facilitate the expansion of Turkish influence.
Was Turkey expecting to increase instability in the Middle East? On the contrary, Ankara set great hopes in achieving unity in the region, by the coming into power of regimes with similar moderate Muslim ideologies.
Moreover, their coordinator was to become Istanbul, as the new political center. In Turkey in 2011, there were also ideas voiced about the establishment of a transnational international organization consisting of democratic states in the Middle East and North Africa, modeled on the European Union and working in association with it.
Syria’s role in Turkey’s foreign policy
Syria played a special role in the Turkish policy of supporting revolutionary changes in the Middle East. In the years 2011-2012, in Ankara they were convinced that the days of the Assad regime were numbered, and soon in Damascus, as a result of democratic elections, would come to power moderate Islamic democratic forces, close to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
It is possible that this was one of the reasons why the Turkish authorities have combined major investments into humanitarian projects (attraction and placement of refugees in Turkey, the creation of educational programs for Syrians, and the sending of humanitarian aid to the regions of Syria “liberated” from state control), with investments into political projects.
Among the political projects was the country’s active participation in the formation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) and its military wing – the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the coordination of efforts of the various opposition forces, providing platforms for intervention, diplomatic efforts to delegitimize Assad, etc.
It should be noted that these activities became quite successful, and provided the Turkish leadership with prestige and authority; however, this all was predicated on a quick resolution of the crisis in Syria.
Five reasons why Turkey ran into problems in Syria
In the years 2013-2014, Turkey became faced with a number of challenges related to the protraction of the Syrian crisis. First and foremost among these was the unexpected perseverance shown by Assad in his bid to remain in power – something no one was expecting would happen.
The second challenge was the fall of friendly regimes that came to power as a result of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as revolutions escalating into civil wars in Yemen and Libya. In fact, in no country did these revolutions lead to positive changes.
The third challenge was the reduced interaction between Turkey and Saudi Arabia to resolve the crisis in Syria. Until 2013, when Riyadh had actively supported the military coup in Egypt, the Saudis carried out the financing of the Turkish humanitarian projects related to the support of refugees, and the funding of the FSA and NCSROF.
The fourth challenge was the scaling back of diplomatic relations with Iran and Russia, an important economic partner of Turkey, as well as of Egypt and Libya.
Finally, the fifth challenge was the radicalization of the Syrian opposition, which caused world public opinion to shift the blame for the crimes that were committed by the opposition forces, to their sponsor – Turkey.
The consequences of all these problems led to a decline in the dynamics of the Turkish economy, the depreciation of the national currency, rising unemployment due to the illegal migration from Syria and growing discontent with the Syrian policy pursued by the authorities in Turkey.
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By 2015, added to all this was the decline in the popularity of the ruling Justice and Development Party, which after the elections in June 2015 lost its monopoly on power, and according to the polls, this situation is unlikely to improve during the snap elections scheduled for Nov. 1.
In addition, Ankara’s policy of supporting the Syrian opposition completely destroyed all previous successes on the path of Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation. During the siege of the Syrian city of Coban in 2014, the Turks did nothing to help the Syrian Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), and so relations deteriorated. Later on, the terrorist attack in the Turkish city of Suruç on June 20, 2015, followed by the bombing of objects of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), led to a radical worsening of the Kurdish issue, placing into question the stability and unity of Turkey itself.
Turkey refuses to change its position despite mixed results
Nonetheless, there are some positive outcomes of the Turkish policy in the Middle East. First, there have been some economic benefits from the acquisition of cheap oil from the territories controlled by the opposition, which allowed keeping gasoline prices at the same level, despite an almost 50 percent depreciation of the Turkish lira in the years 2014-2015. Second – the close cooperation with Qatar, which ensured growth of investments into the Turkish economy coming from this country.
This apparent imbalance of positive and negative consequences quite clearly points to the contradictory nature of Turkey’s foreign policy that supports Middle East revolutions.
Some U.S. experts have started talking about a sad irony – the changing of the policy of “zero problems with neighbors” to “zero friends among neighbors” – “how Turkey went from zero problems to zero friends”.
Nevertheless, Turkey refuses to change its line on Syria, continuing to adhere to the line that Assad must go and supporting opposition groups.
Erdogan has always been famous for his political pragmatism and unconventional policy approaches. In 2002-2003, he was considered a completely pro-American politician, and he did nothing to dispute this view. During his visit to Washington before the 2002 elections, he assured loyalty to allied relations with the United States, which in 2003 did not prevent his party from voting against Turkey’s participation in the intervention in Iraq.
Now Turkey should also review its policy for the Middle East, which has obviously failed and does not correspond to its national interests. If Ankara stops supporting the Syrian opposition, reaches an agreement with Russia and Iran on the coordination of their own actions, it will be able to influence the political reconstruction of the country after the restoration of order there, restore the level of its relations with neighbors, and once again become a positive player on the Middle East chessboard.
However, for now, Ankara has no plans of publically changing its position. Perhaps this is because it is afraid that before the elections, a departure from the previous position would be perceived as a sign of weakness. Therefore, given the already difficult situation in Turkey, the authorities often feel forced to inflate events. This explains for example the violent reaction of Ankara to the downed drone near the Syrian border.
One well-known Turkish blogger-insider Fouad Avni even wrote that the Turkish authorities might specially shoot down a Russian aircraft in order to place the country on a war footing, and thus prevent their defeat in the elections. This, however, did not happen, but to the contrary, Ankara and Moscow have agreed to coordinate flights, which makes the repetition of such incidents almost impossible.
Will business interests trump political interests in Syria?
Why does Turkey refuse to abandon its controversial policies and come to a compromise with Moscow? In general, the majority of political scientists explain that the issue lies in the personal qualities of President Erdogan: his obstinacy and reluctance to admit to having made a mistake.
Others look for answers in conspiracy theories, according to which Erdogan is being held on the hook by U.S. intelligence, afraid of having the next series of corrupt transactions made public. However, all these answers are subjective, and focus on the personality of the Turkish leader.
However, the reason for this refusal to compromise might lie in the fact that too many influential groups in the Turkish elite supported the Syrian conflict, and invested significant funds into it, hoping for a quick profit.
The most promising project, which the Turkish authorities expected to launch, was a large gas pipeline running from Qatar to Europe via Syria. This would allow the country to rid its dependence on Russian gas supplies, as well as control exports to the EU. The possibility of constructing this gas pipeline directly depended on the coming into power of pro-Turkish forces in Syria.
Now, however, Turkish business is gradually coming to its senses and is removing funds from these projects. News coming out about Russia buying eight ships from Turkey to send supplies to Syria shows that Turkish business leaders know better than their government as to who is the really profitable and reliable economic partner, and the government cannot do anything against such decisions.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.