Syrian crises – The End of the road for Erdogan?

FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a news conference in Ankara

Photo credit: Reuters

Many political analysts summarized Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 15 years of rule as, “Everything has started in Syria and will end in Syria.” Not too long ago Erdogan spent a family holiday with Syrian leader Bashar al Assad. However, the honeymoon with Assad was short-lived as key AKP officials exposed the invasion plan by saying he and members of his party will go to Damascus and pray in the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque”. After seven years of the bloody Syrian conflict, millions of Syrians became refugees and hundreds of thousands lost their lives. Last week, Erdogan warned Russia and Iran of the consequences of their military action in Idlib. Now Europe and Turkey face new migration challenges in the coming days. Collectively, it seems that the Syrian crisis has created national security challenges for economically weakened Turkey. 

Why has Erdogan been so aggressive towards Assad since the start of the civil war in Syria? Then Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu introduced the “Zero problems with neighbours” policy. Erdogan and Davutoglu took the initiative by following peaceful diplomacy with Armenia, Cyprus, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Greece to solve longstanding issues between these countries and Turkey. During the 2000s, European leaders fully supported Erdogan who limited military power in Turkey and took the great democratic step towards European Union Membership. The 2011 General Election in Turkey was a turning point for the AKP, which won 50% of the votes in the third consecutive victory since 2002. After consolidating power in the country, the AKP slowed down reforms in Turkey and started to turn back to its previous Islamist ideology. 

In 2011, the AKP’s Istanbul Party leader said that, from now on, people must choose a stance: whether to be with the AKP or in opposition to it. This was the early signal of the regime-change project in the country. With the Arab Spring, Erdogan openly supported opposition armed groups in Syria, Libya, and Egypt. Turkey’s well-known TV personality and former editor-in-Chief Can Dundar, who received the Golden Pen Award in Durban at WAN-IFRA, exposed links between Turkish Intelligence and the arms trade in relation to a Syrian opposition group. In the beginning, Erdogan denied sending arms to Syria by saying that these trucks were carrying humanitarian goods for Turkmen groups in Syria. Opposition MP Enis Berberoglu and Dundar now face life sentences for revealing footage of arms deliveries to Syria. 

Some Western countries, along with Turkey, support opposition groups in Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Today, these groups have lost ground in many parts of Syria and are now stranded in Idlib. Russia and Iran fully back Assad’s forces in Idlib. Tehran surprisingly put out a live broadcast during the last Astana Summit and the entire world watched the discussion between Putin and Erdogan. Erdogan warned Moscow and Tehran about possible civilian casualties under the Idlib operation and offered a ceasefire. Putin rejected Erdogan’s request by saying that there are no representatives of the armed opposition at the table, citing the al-Nusra Front and ISIS.  Putin also noted that the Syrian army was absent from the Summit. Syrian and Russian forces start to bomb Idlib just after the Astana Summit. Interestingly, a few days after the Summit, Erdogan changed his rhetoric and criticised ISIS and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham which operates in Idlib. 

In recent years, the financial and migration crises in Europe already provided golden opportunities for nationalist and far-right political parties on the continent and have made significant electoral gains in Germany, Slovenia, Italy, Germany, Austria, France, Hungary, Poland and most recently, Sweden. Since the Syrian conflict, Turkey has hosted over five million Syrian refugees. Many Turks say that Syrian refuges begin to threaten Turkey’s social fabric and ethnic balance.

The EU signed a refugee agreement to the value of 3 billion euros with the AKP government to stop the migration flow from Turkey to Europe. The Islamist AKP government largely welcomed  Syrians by providing good healthcare services and by paying monthly salaries to refugees. Thousands of Syrian companies operate in Turkey now  and the bulk of these don’t pay tax. As the economic crisis hit Turkey and the Lira lost a historic 40% of its value against the US dollar, Turkish nationalist groups start to target Syrian refugees.  In the last week, violence broke out between Turks and Syrian refugees in Kahramanmaras, the city known for highly patriotic and hyper-nationalist Turkish citizens. 

As Erdogan mentioned during the Astana Summit, Turkey faces another migrant flow from Idlib and the country has reached its capacity to accommodate refugees.  Alongside the grave economic crisis, Turkey already has to contend with the Kurdish and Alawite questions.  Syrian refugees in Turkey – mainly Sunni and Turkish Alawites – support Assad. In the near future, there may be an escalation in conflict between Alawite and Syrian groups once again. Secondly, Turkey’s Kurdish citizens support Syrian Kurds and they can fight with Syrian refugees. In light of all these possible ethnic clashes, Turkey invaded Afrin. In the near future, Syrians could form an armed group inside and outside of Turkey to take revenge for what transpired in Afrin and other Syrian operations. 

Turkey is not a global power but the country still has a strong presence in the historical Ottoman hinterland that includes North Africa, the Middle East and Balkans. Erdogan and his team follow an aggressive foreign policy stance, especially in this region. Erdogan harshly criticises European leaders and recently Donald Trump as well. It seems that the West might not support Turkey anymore. Turkey’s close relationship with Russia is important for Europe now, as Britain and many capitals lost impetus in their dialogue with Russia.  

Despite Putin’s extensive efforts to bring Assad and Erdogan to the same table, the Turkish leader seems to continue along with a hostile stance towards Assad. Pro-Erdogan newspaper Yeni Safak wrote that Turkey will support a 50,000-strong free-Syrian army against Assad in Idlib. Moreover, Jihadists threaten Erdogan, who also built a wall to stop Syrian refugees . One jihadist said that Erdogan must not turn his face to them, or else they could easily reach Turkish city Reyhanli through underground tunnels, thus challenging Erdogan’s perceived invincibility. It is known that the Erdogan regime supported armed groups, which host fighters from  China’s Xinjiang region, Central Asia and Europe. Putin does not want these groups to walk out of Idlib. In the coming months, Erdogan’s honeymoon might end with Russia and Iran. More than that, Erdogan’s ultra-nationalist ally Dogu Perincek threatens Erdogan by saying that Turkey must cut relations with jihadist groups in Syria. 

Turkmen Terzi is a Turkish Journalist and he holds master’s degree of Philosophy from University of Johannesburg.