First in Iraq, then over Syria, the Turkish president has had to back down from his bombastic statements
By Abdel Bari Atwan
Ever since the failed military coup attempt against him last July, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been living in a state of confusion. Anyone following his public pronouncements can sense that. This may be due to the mounting domestic and external pressures facing his government, the failure of most of the policy options he has pursued in neighbouring countries — particularly Syria and Iraq — or the multiplicity of political and military fronts on which he is simultaneously battling. Whatever the balance of reasons, Erdoğan has been in a muddle.
Earlier this week, he surprised his allies and enemies alike by publicly recommitting Turkey to the cause of regime change in Syria. This came in remarks to a gathering in Istanbul – supposedly held to discuss the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem — in which he defended Operation Euphrates Shield, the military offensive he launched in Syria three months ago, and insisted Turkey did no have territorial designs on its southern neighbour.
‘Why did we enter? We do not have an eye on Syrian soil. The issue is to return lands to their real owners. That is to say we are there for the establishment of justice,” he asserted. He went on to elaborate: ‘We entered there to end the rule of the tyrant [Syrian President Bashar] al-Asad who terrorises with state terror… [not] for any other reason.’
This instantly rang alarm bells in Moscow. The Russian leadership hastened to seek clarification of these remarks, which violate the agreements and understandings reached by the two sides. President Vladimir Putin called his Turkish counterpart to voice his disapproval of, and demand an explanation for, his remarks about toppling the Syrian head of state.
Tehran was also quick to react. The Revolutionary Guard’s head of political affairs, Gen. Rassoul Sanaei, suggested Erdoğan was trying to impress the embattled armed groups in Syria. He remarked that the Turkish leader did not have the capacity to overthrow the regime in Syria, and if he did, he would have succeeded in his longstanding quest to create a buffer zone in the north.
Under pressure from both Russia and Iran, Turkey began a process of gradual retreat. First, sources in Erdoğan’s office were quoted as saying that the president’s remarks should not be ‘taken literally’. When advised that this did not amount to sufficient clarification, Erdoğan took the opportunity of a meeting with village mayors on Thursday to complete the climb-down. He affirmed that Operation Euphrates Shield is not directed against ‘a particular state or individual… but only terrorist organisations,’ and admonished those who he said had repeatedly tried to cast doubts in this regard or distort his statements.
This in not Erdoğan’s first climb-down and will certainly not be his last.
Earlier, he insisted that Turkey would take part in the US-led operation against Islamic State (IS) in Mosul despite the Iraqi government’s opposition to its involvement. So adamant was he on the issue that he abandoned any pretence of diplomatic niceties and took to publicly insulting Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. Yet the operation has been underway for a month, and Turkish forces have yet to fire a shot in it.
Erdoğan tried for five years, with the help of the US and its many allies and of billions of Qatari and Saudi dollars to fund the arming of the Syrian opposition, to secure the overthrow of Asad and his government. He was unsuccessful, and the tables on the ground began turning to the regime’s advantage thanks to Russia’s military intervention in its support. Its forces now seem just days away from retaking all of the city of Aleppo.
Erdoğan cannot be unaware of what is going on around him — unless his aides have been concealing facts from him and providing him with false or misleading information, which is conceivable.
The unpalatable truth is that Turkey has managed to surround itself with enemies on all sides. The irony is that these adversaries – including Europe, Iraq, Iran, Syria and the Kurds — were faithful friends until relatively recently. Good relations with them bolstered the country’s economic and political renaissance and its rise to prominence on the international stage. They cannot all now be in the wrong, with Erdoğan alone being in the right.
Turkish forces will not be able to bring down the Syrian regime. Had they been capable, they would have succeeded in doing so when many world leaders– including the US president, the Israeli prime minister and a number of Gulf rulers — believed the Syrian regime’s days were numbered. Yet Asad has managed to politically outlive a number of these figures, and the list can be expected to grow. It may soon be joined Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair, who liked nothing more than to predict the impending demise of Asad’s regime, whether by force or peaceful means. He has disappeared from the Arab scene and we no longer hear these utterances from him. It is unclear whether he is being kept in his post.
The Syrian regime has survived because it has the backing of a powerful Russian-led coalition that cannot countenance its collapse, and because its own army has remained in tact and defied predictions that it would disintegrate, despite sustaining huge casualties in five years of vicious civil war.
The Turkish president would be well advised to restrain his public statements so he does not have to retract them later. He may have been lured into a trap sprung by the US and the West using Arab tools. But it’s better to avoid falling into holes than having to struggle to find ways to climb out of them.