Erdogan entrenched in the Syrian quagmire

By Mohammad Pervez Bilgrami:

The Syrian uprising against four decades of Baathist rule of the Alawai/Nuseyri Al-Assad family has been confronted in the past. During the reign of Hafez Al-Assad, father of the incumbent President Basher Al-Assad, a Muslim Brotherhood led rebellion was curbed ruthlessly by state forces in Hama in the year 1982. Witness noted that the Syrian Army razed the entire old city and killed between ten and forty thousand people. Turkey of the twentieth century did not retort against Hafez Al-Assad’s cruelty because of many reasons: one was its ‘look west’ policy and another was a desire not to enter into Middle Eastern political affairs, once the domain of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkish Republic.

Since the Recep Tayyip Erdogan led AK Party (AKP) came in to power in 2001, it has started looking increasingly to its Muslim and Arab Eastern neighbors. Prime Minister Erdogan has personally shaped excellent rapports with various regional leaders, including Basher Al-Assad, Ahamdinejad of Iran, and the late Ghaddafi of Libya. His personal efforts have put Turkey in the core of Middle Eastern geopolitics and improved Turkey’s commercial and political standing in those countries.

Since Arab uprising started in the spring of 2011 and reached the Syrian hinterland, Erdogan personally tried to direct Al-Assad to solve the crisis but he forget that Al-Assad is an ingrained dictator and would not take his advice sufficiently seriously. Erdogan personally felt disregarded when Basher Al-Assad did not heed to his advice and refused to implement the reforms advised by Erdogan and his foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

When it was sure that Al-Assad would not pay attention to his recommendations but would repress the people’s voice, Erdogan made a U-turn and joined or even started leading the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council)-led agenda of removing Basher Al-Assad through military means by supporting rebels and encouraging NATO to take the military lead against the Al-Assad regime. Here Erdogan got his calculations wrong. It seems that United States has never been interested in taking military action to remove the Syrian regime and this has left Erdogan and Turkey alone and in the lurch.

Syria has become a thorn in the body politic of Erdogan and it has impacted adversely on Turkish relations with the Iranians. The personal relationship between Erdogan and Al-Assad has reached a the point of no return and any rapprochement or negotiation appears out of question. It seems that in the beginning PM Erdogan was confident that Basher Al-Assad would seriously listen to his advice but he found, to his dismay, that Al-Assad has only acted on Iranian advice and Russian support.

The ‘zero problems with neighborhood’ policy architected by foreign minister Davutoğlu suddenly turned into ‘zero friends in the neighborhood’ as Al-Maliki of Iraq also started bickering against Turkey on Iran’s behest.  Now Turkey is in a war like situation with Syria, diplomatic strife with Iraq and Iran and has seriously troubled relations with Israel, even after that apology. The entire Middle Eastern schematic has been fatally disturbed by the two-year-long Syrian crisis.

It is of vital for Turkey to emerge victorious from the Syrian quagmire for its own standing in the Middle East. It is extraordinarily difficult for a country like Turley to live in the atmosphere of animosity in the region because Turkey is expected to lead the region politically and diplomatically. I am of the belief that United States has put Turkey in the situation where it can neither withdraw itself nor can it act militarily to cleanse the Syrian swamp.

Although Turkey has initiated the political dialogue with jailed PKK chief Abdullah Ojalan to solve its chronic Kurdish issue, at the most serious juncture since it became a republic, she has yet to face many stumbling blocks before reaching that desired solution.  If Erdogan succeeds in solving the internal Kurdish issue this will have long-lasting positive affect for Turkish soft and hard power in the region. It will not only strengthen the country internally but also give Erdogan extended hands to handle the Syrian issue more comprehensively – as we know there are two million Kurds in Syria and al-Assad has left them free to rule the roost.

The Syrian crisis has opened the Pandora box of Shia –Sunni conflict in the entire west Asian region that was long subdued due to the US invasion of Iraq, Israeli- Palestine conflict and Turkish- Iranian bonhomie in the pre-Syrian crisis period. Now the region has divided along sectarian lines, where Sunnites are Supporting Sunnites and Shiites are backing Shiites. The problem has taken a sectarian tone from Yemen to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia to Syria and Iraq to Lebanon.  The Syrian crisis has turned the greater Middle East in a Shia-Sunni turf war in which one side has Iran, Al-Al- Maliki, Hezbollah and al-Assad and the other has the Saudi-Qatar-led GCC  and Turkey.

This bloody sectarian conflict will not be resolved in next few months or years. As the geopolitical events unfold, we will witness a quasi-permanent fratricidal intra-Islamic sectarian war for decades in the west Asian region, culminating in major cartographical changes. The US strategic retreat from the Middle East and pivot to East Asia will finally allow history to emerge in the Middle East uncontaminated by the hegemonic order imposed by the US hyper-power.

Suffice to say that Erdogan has hastened his disenfranchisement with Al-Assad. He should have moulded his policies in a way that provided him the prominence of regional statesman so that he could mediate in the ominous sectarian conflict as a neutral power broker. By getting involved in the crisis he has become a part of problem himself and misplaced the advantage of neutrality for solving the impending sectarian catastrophe in the region.

Mohammad Pervez Bilgrami is Delhi-based independent analyst on international relations and geopolitics. His special focus is on West Asian & North African affairs.

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