Has Turkey Reached a Strategic Impasse in the Mideast?

Article Summary
Turkey’s Syria policy has been based on wishful thinking rather than reality, leading to a decline in Ankara’s influence throughout the region.

Turkey has been wrong-footed again on Syria. No doubt, the inventors of “precious loneliness” could craft another definition for this situation too. Yet it is obvious that Ankara’s Syria calculations have gone awry once again.

The British have a saying about “flogging a dead horse.” The matching Turkish idiom could be “saying amen to an improbable prayer.” That’s where Ankara has ended up, pursuing a narrow-minded policy on Syria while aggrandizing its own role.

The government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed that a US-led Western coalition would finally move to strike and overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons. And it didn’t make a secret of its willingness to be part of the coalition. Ankara’s expectations, however, were dashed first by Washington’s assertion that overthrowing Assad would not be the purpose of any eventual intervention, and then by Russia’s proposal on chemical weapons.

Miscalculating the possible diplomatic outcome of the proposal, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was quick to play it down as a “cosmetic” move that would buy time for Assad. The deal will no doubt buy time for Assad, but the “cosmetic” nature Davutoglu attributed to the exercise is highly questionable.

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The Syrian crisis has now entered a diplomatic course, with the prospect of a military intervention to topple Assad fading away. Even Washington is now opposed to Assad’s disorderly overthrow as al-Qaeda-linked groups are swarming Syria and uncertainty lingers about who will replace him. Ankara, on the other hand, is cool to diplomatic options and continues to favor Assad’s overthrow. Yet it has no convincing answer to the question of who his successor would be.

Turkey based its Syria policy on abstract wishful thinking rather than concrete, factual assessments. Regional and global balances disabled that policy, and Ankara’s shortsightedness has now left it in trouble.

That only a US-Russian agreement could bring an end to the Syrian war had become obvious a long time ago. Looking from a wider perspective, one should concede that the West grasps the realities of the Middle East better than Turkey and plays its game accordingly. One should similarly concede that Assad, no matter how bloodied his hands are, has turned out to be much smarter than Ankara thought him to be.

In the current circumstances, it remains unclear when Turkey could make a comeback in the Middle East as an influential player. A country that is quick to belittle a proposal by a key UN Security Council member as “cosmetic” is unlikely to have any significant place at the negotiating table.

Barring Northern Iraq, we are non-existent in Iraq. We are non-existent in Egypt and Syria, too. We are similarly non-existent in the Middle East [peace] process due to state of relations with Israel. So, what is left behind?

The [main opposition] Republican People’s Party (CHP) may be driving the AKP mad, but it is making efforts to rebuild bridges in the region. Yet, even those efforts seem unlikely to bear fruit at the stage we have reached.

Certainly, the Arab streets are still full of admirers of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It has become a vogue for suffering people to name their newborn sons “Tayyip.” But all countries in the world give priority to protecting their own interests first. It is unclear what our national interests have gained from the Erdogan adoration in the streets other than trouble.

Moreover, it's dubious that the heavyweights of the Middle East will put up with a leader who agitates the region’s streets in the name of “democracy,” while having no tolerance at all to democratic protests in his own country. We have ended up in a “strategic impasse” while boasting of “strategic depth.”

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