Turkey’s stance in the joint struggle against IS is indeed low-profile, but perhaps this is an understatement. If the recent discourse of its decision-makers is scrutinized closely, one may reach the conclusion that the ruling Islamist government of Turkey is more distanced from its NATO allies than from IS.
While US officials said that Turkey has, finally, begun to crack down on foreign fighters entering Syria, the circumspect response by Erdogan to separate appeals by both Kerry and Hagel can only be characterized as a setback for the rollout of US President Barack Obama’s regional strategy against IS.
The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 13 characterized Turkey as a “non-ally” and cited former US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone as saying last week that Turkey “frankly worked” with Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-linked group.
The spin from Ankara is that Turkish reluctance to be out front is because of an understandable concern about its diplomats held hostage by IS in Mosul, a sign of the blowback from Turkey’s ambiguous approach to foreign fighters in Syria that this column has warned about since January.
And it is more than that. Cengiz Candar writes: “Turkey’s stance in the joint struggle against IS is indeed low-profile, but perhaps this is an understatement. If the recent discourse of its decision-makers is scrutinized closely, one may reach the conclusion that the ruling Islamist government of Turkey is more distanced from its NATO allies than from IS.”
Kadri Gursel reports some reservations against fully pursuing IS also stem from an “ideological constraint” present in the leadership of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Gursel writes: “The AKP government and its media have never referred to IS as a terrorist group, calling it a ‘radical element.'” This reluctance shows that “IS enjoys a remarkable ‘caveat’ in the mindset of Turkey’s leadership,” notes Gursel.
Turkey’s “caveat” about IS may contribute to its sinking standing in US Congress. Some members have threatened punitive legislation for Turkey’s support for Hamas, as Julian Pecquet reports. With the United States now waging war on IS, Congress will expect its allies to step up. Those that don’t will likely face enhanced scrutiny of the reasons why any country would hedge in acting against enemies Obama described this week as “unique in their brutality,” and whose “leaders have repeatedly threatened the United States.”
Russia’s cards in Syria
Russia, which is providing arms to both Iraq and Syria, argues that conducting airstrikes or military operations inside Syria, without the support of the Syrian government, is a violation of international law.
A consequence of the Russian position is that it could neutralize the UN Security Council in dealing with Syria, meaning US or allied strikes there would have a questionable legal basis.
This would be especially problematic if any US or allied jets were shot down over Syria, a possible contingency if airstrikes take place. In June 2012, Syrian forces shot down a Turkish jet allegedly in Syrian airspace. Syria’s air defenses are supplied by Russia. Although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apologized and sought to de-escalate that crisis, some press accounts alleged an even more direct Russian hand.
Moscow has diplomatic cards as well. Moscow might consider its own coalition of like-minded powers, including Iran, to combat IS. And Moscow could sponsor meetings between Damascus and Syrian opposition forces, which it has done in the past, as Vitaly Naumkin writes this week. Syria, Iran, Iraq and China, to name a few, would all be inclined to support such a Russian initiative.
According to Naumkin, Moscow’s perspective, which has been consistent since the beginning of the Syria crisis, is that “Damascus fills the role, in one way or another, of the (albeit unacknowledged) de facto ally of the West and the countries in the region leading the fight against the ultra-Islamist radicals, [which] in Moscow’s view increases the chances for a diplomatic settlement of the Syrian conflict.”
Iran out of US coalition
US Secretary of State John Kerry ruled Iran out of the US coalition, citing the presence of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in Syria, and referring to Iran as a “state sponsor of terror in various places.”
For its part, Iran has expressed its “doubts about the seriousness of the coalition” and is not asking to join.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for African and Arab Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian blamed US and Western policies for the rise of extremism in the region while calling for an international effort to combat extremists.
Iran’s Majles Speaker Ali Larijani warned that US policies would backfire and incite hatred in the region.
Iran has already shown its willingness to join the battle against IS on its own terms — such as in Iraq — and in the end has a decisive role in the future of Syria. Iranian conservatives opposed to cooperation with the United States may get a boost from the US approach to the coalition, as Arash Karami reports.
With Turkey on the fence, and Russia and Iran sitting out, the “broad coalition of partners” for the United States in the Middle East seems tilted toward those Arab governments that are committed to their own long-standing agendas in Syria, including the overthrow of the Assad government.
Obama’s request that America’s Sunni allies “help mobilize Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria,” while necessary, nonetheless treads closely to casting the battle in the sectarian terms the United States hopes to avoid.
Obama’s turnaround on the Syrian opposition
Obama is counting on “ramped up” military assistance to the Syrian opposition “as the best counterweight to extremists like [IS].”
The president’s investment in the opposition represents a turnaround from his comments in an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman just last month:
“With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’”
While Obama reminded Americans that “additional US action depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government,” the United States will take a different approach in Syria, rejecting cooperation with Damascus and instead relying on a nonstate armed group to be the “boots on the ground” in the battle against IS.
It is worth pausing to consider this decision to rule the “moderate” Syrian rebel forces as the “best” counterweight to IS, given Obama’s position just last month, and taking into account the experiences of Libya and Iraq.
In Libya, the state has collapsed following a NATO-backed insurgency that toppled Moammar Gadhafi.
In Iraq, over 140,000 US ground troops could not prevent a sectarian civil war after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, probably the most bloody years in the modern history of the country.
There should be questions about the effectiveness of “train and equip” after 10 years of rebuilding the Iraqi military, which initially collapsed against the advance of IS in June.
Nonetheless, the president is investing heavily to “train and equip” a Syrian rebel force, about which Obama told Friedman on Aug. 8, “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.”
Obama also said the United States would pursue “the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.” With more subtle and creative diplomacy, perhaps Washington can leverage the IS threat toward a political transition in Syria.
On the ground in Syria, the UN is helping facilitate 40 local truces between regime and rebel forces.
One option could be to capitalize on these negotiations to broker alliances between government and opposition forces. This could serve the US objectives of forging a Syrian alliance to defeat IS and building goodwill toward a political transition. Such an effort would require Russia and Iran to use their leverage with Damascus.
The urgency of the Syria crisis grows by the day. The newly appointed UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, met on Sept. 11 with Assad in Damascus. De Mistura described the situation in Syria as “shocking,” including a tally so far of 190,000 dead, 3 million refugees and 9 million displaced.
And then there is the plight of Syria’s Christians. Peggy Noonan writes this week in the Wall Street Journal of the “genocide” of the region’s Christians, noting that “for all his crimes and failings, Syria’s justly maligned Assad was not attempting to crush his country’s Christians. His enemies were — the jihadists, including those who became the Islamic State.”
Prospects for a rapprochement between Ankara and Cairo, whose ties hit rock-bottom following Mohammed Morsi’s ouster by the Egyptian military in 2013, appear bleaker than ever after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used some of the harshest language to date against Egypt in his UN General Assembly address on Sept. 24.
According to Middle East experts in Ankara contacted by Al-Monitor, Erdogan’s remarks, which elicited a sharp rejoinder from Egypt, show that Turkey will remain a staunch backer of Morsi and a keen supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and across the Middle East.
This, however, flies in the face of many regional countries that are opponents of the Brotherhood, and raises questions about whether Ankara can play any significant role in the Middle East while remaining at loggerheads with a principle Arab power that the West and many Arab countries are cooperating closely with.
Referring to the “slaughter of democracy” in Egypt in his speech to the UN General Assembly, Erdogan accused the United Nations and the democratic countries of the West of “simply looking on” as the popularly elected president of Egypt was toppled in a military coup, and as thousands who wanted this to be accounted for were massacred.
Egypt’s response to Erdogan was quick in coming and also showed that tensions between the two countries were unlikely to abate anytime soon. “There is no doubt that the fabrication of such lies and fabrications is not something strange that comes from the Turkish president, who is keen to provoke chaos to sow divisions in the Middle East region through support for groups and terrorist organizations,” a statement from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said.
Providing insight into how Erdogan’s remarks were received in the region, the United Arab Emirates Foreign Ministry also denounced Erdogan, accusing him of “irresponsible and blatant interference in the internal affairs” of Egypt.
Erdogan has consistently criticized the Egyptian military and its backers in most of his public speeches since its coup against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Erdogan’s grassroots Islamist supporters continue to admire Morsi and bear an ideological affinity with the Brotherhood, which has been labeled a “terrorist organization” in Egypt.
Having pursued policies that clipped the political wings of the Turkish military, to guard his Islamist government against the possibility of being ousted in a coup similar to those that took place in Turkey in past decades, Erdogan clearly feels politically duty-bound to oppose any military-led ouster of elected governments, and particularly Islamist ones, in the region.
Nebahat Tanriverdi, a senior researcher with the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), also stressed this point when answering questions for Al-Monitor.
“Opposing military coups has become a centerpiece of Ankara’s foreign policy following the Egyptian coup in 2013. There are no signs that this value-based doctrine, which has replaced Turkey’s previous doctrine of maintaining good ties with regional countries, will change soon,” Tanriverdi said. She added that this also indicates there will be no early change in the current state of Turkish-Egyptian relations.
Umit Ozdag, the director of the 21st Century Turkey Institute, another Ankara-based think tank, struck a more alarming note when explaining the motivation behind Erdogan’s attack on Egypt at the UN.
“There is an ideological motivation behind his words that shows Turkey will become the center for the Egyptian opposition, and especially the Muslim Brotherhood, in the coming period,” Ozdag, a political science professor and former deputy from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), told Al-Monitor.
He said this was not just any public speech by Erdogan but one that was carefully prepared with the assistance of his foreign policy advisers with a view to sending a clear message to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists in the Middle East.
Asked if this would not damage Turkey’s chances of playing an influential role in the region by putting it at odds with the region’s principle powers, Ozdag said the answer to this depends on one’s point of view.
“Looked at rationally, it’s obvious that Turkey is isolated in the region. But the architects of Turkey’s current policies refer to this as ‘precious isolation’ and believe supporting Salafists and the Brotherhood is the correct thing to do,” he said. Ozdag went on to assert that Ankara’s support for these groups would do “extraordinary damage to Turkey the way Salafists in Afghanistan did to Pakistan.”
Retired Ambassador Osman Koruturk, who served as special envoy for Iraq in 2003-05, and whose previous postings as ambassador included Tehran, also believes that Erdogan’s fury against Egypt is ideologically motivated, rather than reflecting a genuine concern for democracy. He pointed out that Erdogan’s own democratic credentials in Turkey were far from perfect.
Koruturk, a deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), maintained that Erdogan dreamed of a political system in the Middle East that was based on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist outlook. “The anger in his UN speech is essentially against those countries that are supporting [President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s] government in Egypt and preventing the Muslim Brotherhood from ascending to power,” Koruturk said.
Retired diplomat Ali Tuygan, whose ambassadorial posts included Riyad (1995-97) and who served as undersecretary for the Foreign Ministry in 2004-06, for his part, questioned how Turkey expected to be elected to the UN Security Council — which it is lobbying for — with Erdogan venting his anger at Egypt in this way.
Tuygan also told Al-Monitor that it was not possible for Turkey to play an important role in the Middle East without Egypt’s support. “Even [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas made this point during his visit to Ankara in July, when he openly emphasized Egypt’s regional importance during a panel discussion,” Tuygan said.
Despite his critics, Erdogan’s continuing anger at the Egyptian government and his support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and its affiliates like Hamas, continue to command great respect and admiration among Turkey’s conservative Islamic masses.
Arguing that Turkey’s foreign policy was “neither dictating nor condescending,” Seral Koprulu, an analyst for the pro-government daily Yeni Safak, wrote in a current column that hatred and violence was increasing by the day in the Middle East.
“The solution is for all Muslims to act with a sense of solidarity and to unite,” she said in her commentary in which she lauded Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s, and hence Erdogan’s, foreign policy that she indicated was aimed at trying to secure this.
This, then, is how Erdogan’s supporters see the Middle East. Erdogan’s morality-based approach to the region is also one of the reasons behind the strong support he secured in the Aug. 10 presidential elections, when he was elected with 52% of the vote.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that he headed until he became president was preparing for the June 2015 general elections, only nine months away. It is aiming for a strong victory in those elections, based on policies that have brought it one electoral victory after another since first coming to power in 2002.
This also makes it unlikely in the coming period that Erdogan will change tack on Egypt, or any of his diplomat hobby horses relating to the region, and ensures that Turkish-Egyptian ties will remain in the doldrums for the foreseeable future.