Turkey sidelined by its Arab Spring policies

Turkey's policies in the wake of the Arab Spring, particularly in Syria, have led to it being sidelined in regional politics.

al-monitor A statue wears a mask placed by anti-government protesters during a demonstration in central Ankara, March 13, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

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turkey, syrian conflict, syria, regional politics, politics, jabhat al-nusra, foreign policy

Mar 24, 2014

The world focused on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, while Syria resembled a patient abandoned at the operating table.

Syria reappeared on the agenda with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) blackmail of threatening to attack Turkish soldiers at the Tomb of Suleiman Shah near Aleppo if they didn’t leave within three days, and with the attack of anti-regime forces to capture Kassab where Alawites and Armenians live opposite our Yayladagi township. Of course, these events helped to push the raging scandals of corruption, phone taps and Twitter a bit to the background.

Here we have noted an indirect development of Turkey being marginalized not only in Syria, but also in a wider regional context because of its ill-judged actions during the Arab uprising. For example, Turkey and Qatar were excluded from the 23rd Islamic Affairs Higher Council meeting in Cairo that would bring together 34 countries. According to Gulf News, Egyptian Minister of Religious Endowments Mokhtar Gomaa said that until Turkey apologized to Egypt and the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and changed its Egypt policy, there would be no new relations with Turkey. No doubt the attitudes of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which have severed their diplomatic ties with Qatar because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, have played a role in Turkey’s exclusion. Of course, this situation will also affect the proxy war in Syria.

Moderate front in the south

For some time now, there has been a Saudi position that contradicted the Qatar-Turkey approach to the configuration of the Syrian opposition. What is bizarre is how the Saudis portray themselves as the "actor responsible for supporting the moderate opposition." While Qatar and Turkey are held responsible for allowing fanatical groups to take the initiative in Syria’s north, Saudi Arabia, with the United States, is trying to put together a moderate opposition wing called the "Southern Front” in the south of Syria. The Southern Front is said to have 30,000-40,000 soldiers and is receiving advanced anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons via Jordan and training/intelligence support from the CIA. According to The Wall Street Journal, Bashar al-Zoubi, the leader of the Southern Front, is in direct contact with a military operations room set up in Amman by Arab and Western intelligence services. This operation is marketed as an effort to strengthen the moderate opposition against extremists. But who is a moderate and who is an extremist is all relative.

To understand what I am trying to say, have a look at the northern front: To make the regime’s ace card of "fighting terror" played to the West useless by pacifying ISIS near Turkey, the Islamic Front, drawn from Salafists, is cooperating in the field with the al-Qaeda-patented Jabhat al-Nusra. In the Operation Anfal to capture the Kassab border crossing, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front were partners. But Jabhat al-Nusra is on the US terror list. If the Syrian complaint to the UN is factual, opposition militants used Turkey’s Yayladagi to capture Kassab. That means Turkey continues with its “irresponsible actor” role. Only yesterday, March 23, a Syrian plane attacking the opposition militants at this border area was shot down by Turkey.

Rules of engagement benefit al-Qaeda

Just as the Western alliance was hoping to use Ukraine to hit at Moscow, it lost Crimea. Washington and Moscow, whose paths met at Geneva to find a peaceful solution in Syria, again went in different directions. Washington once again is talking of clash scenarios. Terminating all Syrian diplomatic activities in the United States when there was no current excuse and deciding to arm the opposition is another indicator. In the coming phase, new pressures to squeeze the Syrian regime by using the Jordan-linked Southern Front are likely. But all the schemes by the opposition front cannot prevent the Assad regime from advancing its strategy of severing the logistical connections of the opposition with the help of Iran and Hezbollah. After Qusair, the regime as part of its Grand Qalamoun Battle captured Kara, Zara, Humus-el Vair, Yabrud and Ras al-Ain and the opposition’s support lines to Lebanon were mostly cut. Many tunnels were discovered at Yabrud. If it can hold on to the Damascus-Homs-Aleppo triangle, the regime may have an easier time with its operations in the south and the north. But the groups that withdrew from Qalamoun might press on the northern front against the regime, since the opposition now controls Sweihne, from where it can hit the Zahra military air base west of Aleppo. Kassab fell after three days of fighting.

If we bear in mind that Turkey’s unilateral rules of engagement have created a de facto buffer zone for the opposition and have limited the maneuverability of the regime forces, al-Qaeda, which now has control of Kassab, should be grateful to Ankara. I wonder how Turkey, which for some time now has been accused of supporting al-Qaeda elements, will explain the new neighbor on its border. Firing a few desultory artillery rounds at al-Qaeda’s independent-minded kid ISIS isn’t enough to justify Turkey’s support of Jabhat al-Nusra. Don’t forget that these groups were involved in last summer’s Alawite massacres at Latakia.

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