Turkey Gets Its Finger Burnt In Syria
A world which seemed to be on the edge of a catastrophe a few weeks ago, suddenly gives the impression of pulling back from the brink. President Obama and Supreme leader Ali Khamenei have both indicated a preference for diplomacy over militarism. In Syria President Bashar al Assad has thanked the five nation BRICS summit for upholding principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Turkey which played a role in raising the stakes and now lowering it, deserves a close look. A mildly Islamized democratic Turkey ruled by its most charismatic Prime Minister ever, Tayyep Erdogan, was incorporated in the management of what had at one stage acquired the label of Arab Spring.
Folks in Erdogan’s entourage, particularly foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, were sketching tentative plans of playing out Erdogan’s charisma and Turkey’s new economic status on a larger Arab canvas.
These plans had clearly not been thought through because they came into conflict with stated policy. One such policy was fairly explicit: zero problems with neighbours. Such a policy would entail a curbing of obvious quest for influence beyond the borders.
But Erdogan’s exceptional success, a substantial improvement in his party’s vote share through three successive elections, something of a record, placed temptations in the way of his foreign policy team.
At its outset, the Arab Spring conjured up images of people’s power leading to a search for democratic models. What better model for an awakening in the Muslim world than the secular Republic of Turkey under soft Islamic influence?
Few leaders have been mobbed the way Erdogan was in post Mubarak Cairo. After Qaddafi’s brutal murder, he turned up at the Tripoli square to say his prayers like the Caliphs of an era long past.
It is a truth Arab leaders (not the people) hate to admit that Iran, Hezbullah and Syria, in that order, are the most popular entities in the Arab street because of their rhetoric and unwavering support for the Palestinian cause.
The US and the Saudis would be happier if Turkey, mostly Sunni and a member of NATO was to replace the Iran-Hezbullah-Syria trio in the popularity stakes. Erdogan knows elementary West Asian politics: for popularity in the Arab street, it is almost an essential pre condition to be viewed with suspicion in Jerusalem.
This Erdogan has achieved with distinction by gestures like walking out on Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos or taking a tough line against Israel for their attack on the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza.
When the West set up a role for Turkey to prevent suspected Iranian nuclear plans, Ankara accepted the role with a proviso that enhanced its stock in Arab eyes: Iranians can be dissuaded from their alleged nuclear plans only if Israel’s nuclear arsenal is also placed on the table!
In the meanwhile, some Turkish think tanks began to have visions of replicating an Ottoman version of the British Commonwealth in the Arab region. This is anathema to the Arabs and may well have been one reason for a decline in enthusiasm for a Turkish role in the region.
Ankara too is beginning to realize that a dilution of its “zero-problems-with-neighbours” policy has heavy costs attached to it. Its material and military support to the protesters in Syria was to some extent because of Erdogan’s earlier Muslim Brotherhood association. It was this weakness of Erdogan’s the west exploited to destabilize the Syrian regime. But to their utter embarrassment 49 Turkish soldiers were arrested by the Syrian army. It also occurred to Ankara that Syrians can always aggravate Turkey’s Kurdish problem. After all, Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds are bunched in contiguous territory. They can always make common cause against Ankara.
Buried under the surface is a deep rooted issue most Turks have developed an amnesia about.When the Sunni-Alawi divide widened in Syria, the 20 million Turkish Alawis (who have under Kemalist edict compulsorily adopted Turkish identity) showed signs of restiveness. The issue is no trifling matter.
Above all, something Turks are privately suspicious of is the West prodding Ankara to play a larger role. “They never allowed us to enter Europe. Are we now being pushed into a larger role so we come into conflict with all our neighbours. In fact it must be galling for Europe that Greece, the mother of Western Civilization, is on its knees while we, whom they would not allow to enter Europe, are the regional power by a long shot!”
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