Is Turkey About To Perform a U-Turn on Syria?

Abdel Bari Atwan

With just one week to go before the planned  Geneva Conference 2, which aims to broker a political end to the bloody civil war, Turkish President, Abdullah Gül, surprised commentators with a call to ‘recalibrate’ his country’s stance on Syria. Clearly, the Turkish regime is increasingly resigned to the fact that Syrian President Assad is not about to fall.

Along with Saudi Arabia, Turkey has been the most vociferous critic of President Assad and has supported the opposition, hosting its exiled leadership and arming and funding its fighters.

Gul explained his position to a gathering of Turkish Ambassadors in Ankara, saying the government was looking for ways to achieve a ‘win-win situation’ vis a vis Syria. ‘Today’s situation represents a lose-lose scenario for each state, regime and people of the region,’ he concluded.

The Turkish President’s decision to drop this bombshell will deepen the recent rift that has emerged between him and his old friend, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has adopted a fiercely outspoken stance against the Syrian regime in the firm belief that Assad’s days were numbered.

The question that arises is why has Gul shifted the Turkish position, backing down to some extent, and possibly even considering a resumption of relations with the Assad regime?

 The reasons – and their ramifications – can be summarized thus:

* First, it has become apparent that Erdogan misread the situation in Syria. His response was not only inaccurate, but hasty, and his policy in Syria has totally backfired, especially his bet on the Muslim Brotherhood as a major force for change.

* Secondly, the Syrian regime has succeeded in absorbing Turkish hostility and Ankara now risks isolation on the international stage if it resists the changing tide of diplomacy, led by Russia and the US.

* Third, Erdogan’s government has been discredited by a series of corruption scandals. Ministers and their sons, as well as senior officials in Erdogan’s AKP party, were implicated. Four ministers resigned and one of them, Erdogan Bayraktar shocked the nation when he said Prime Minister Erdogan should resign too. The protests that followed, reversed Erdogan’s former popularity and, according to polls, that of the AKP.

*Fourth, Erdogan is out of step with the new Western theory,  championed by the US and Britain, that the priority in Syria is no longer the overthrow of President Bashar Al-Assad but to neutralize the increasingly powerful jihadist groups.

* Fifth, the declining importance of the role Turkey is playing in Syria. Saudi Arabia is the biggest player, pumping billions of dollars into financing and arming militant opposition factions.

* Sixth, the success Islamic extremist groups espousing the ideology of Al-Qaida have had in infiltrating Turkey and recruiting hundreds of young Turks to fight in their ranks, especially in areas bordering Syria. The blowback effect, when these battle-hardened extremists return to Turkey, is a cause for great concern.

* Seventh: many in the international community believe that Erdogan should be charged with supporting terrorism in international courts because of Turkey’s role in helping Arab and foreign fighters passing through their territory to Syria.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a political veteran who has always displayed great pragmatism; he  never hesitates to undo policies or withdraw bets that are considered lost. He is unlikely, then, to persevere with his stance on the Syrian crisis, especially after the sharp divisions among the Syrian opposition and its failure to unite under one umbrella, forming a single delegation to participate in the Geneva Conference.

The Turkish retreat on Syria actually began when Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu paid a visit to Tehran and sought rapprochement with Syrian allies, Iran and Iraq. President Rohani of Iran and Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki were subsequently invited to visit Ankara.

In addition, Erdogan recently visited Moscow which is also a powerful backer of the Syrian regime and has been displaying masterful diplomacy in the past months.

In an earlier article, we said that we would not be surprised to see the Turkish secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, paying a visit to Damascus. This is still our view, and we expect it sooner rather than later. Ihsanoglu’s OIC mandate expires at the end of January.

Erdogan’s significant political and economic achievements are threatened, and the same is true of his moderate Islamist Government, which needs to back off before it is too late, as indicated by President Gul in his meeting with Turkish diplomats.

Erdogan supported the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, without reward and the prospect of regional isolation may force it into restoring its previous ‘zero problem’ approach to diplomacy with neighbouring countries, especially Syria, sooner rather than later.

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