About twenty miles safely inside the border of Turkey with Syria
stands one of the command posts of the Free Syrian Army. In reality
they are simply a few elderly houses commandeered by the Turkish
army and made available to fleeing Syrian soldiers. There are no
Turkish soldiers in the area, but piles of supplies and equipment
lay about. If asked, the Syrian fighters gathered there will swear
it’s all materiel they brought with them when they crossed over.
The Turkish markings on many of the boxes are ignored — and that’s
just the way the Turkish liaison officers want it.
In brief this scene reflects Turkey’s problem in dealing with
the bloody events occurring daily in neighboring Syria. Over thirty
thousand refugees now fill camps along the Turkish side of the
border. It is a difficult and expensive undertaking for Ankara to
provide sanctuary for the civilian and military personnel who have
fled from the deadly actions of Bashar al-Assad. Reluctantly the
government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accepted aid from its NATO
partners. Turkey did not ask for the aid, and is attempting to
ignore its arrival, but it’s undeniably useful.
The breakdown in the relationship between Ankara and Damascus
carries a very personal disappointment. Prime Minister Erdogan and
President Bashar al-Assad had evolved an excellent acquaintance.
This had extended to valuable intelligence exchange projects that
on the Turkish side provided useful information on the Kurdish
Workers Party (PKK) that has long maintained terrorist operations
in southeast Turkey. The quelling of Kurdish dissidence has been
one of the keys to the success of Erdogan and his political party,
Friends and enemies alike view Recep Tayyip Erdogan as seeking
to evolve into a contemporary version of the late dynamic Turkish
leader, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, who established the post-Ottoman
Empire secular democracy of Turkey. Erdogan, however, wants a
reinstitution of Islamic culture and, to some extent, principles.
He has also stripped the military of its primacy and, most
specifically, its guardianship of Turkey’s secular commitment. It
has been said Erdogan seeks the mantle of Mustapha Kemal’s
honorific, “Father of the Turks” (the meaning of Ataturk). At the
same time Erdogan is perceived by many as working to undercut the
latter’s dedication to the maintenance of a secular Turkish state
in favor of creating a version of an Islamic republic.
Bashar al-Assad had become an important element in Erdogan’s
ambition not only to empower Turkey itself with a return to Islamic
values, but to move Turkey once more into the forefront of Middle
Eastern regional affairs. The Shia-Sunni rivalry was put aside as
Turkey’s role as a mediator in Iran’s nuclear future was introduced
as a possible outgrowth of the Erdogan-Bashar al-Assad
relationship. That now is also a victim of the Syrian civil war and
the breakdown of the bridge between Damascus and Ankara.
Turkey is now the principal haven for all those fleeing Syria
and it has been forced to accept its new role as the aid center for
Syria’s refugees. This is not what Erdogan had in mind as he
encouraged his aggressive foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to
seek to sell the concept of Ankara as the “natural” intermediary in
Middle Eastern matters. In fact Davutoglu has been quoted as saying
that Turkey “has a unique understanding of the Middle East.” That
“unique understanding” is now being put to the test as his
ambitious prime minister is burdened by the expectations of his
neighbors that Ankara will play a decisive and helpful role. These
neighbors — each with their own interests — want their version of
an even-handed cessation of the conflict.
To put it bluntly, Erdogan has succeeded in placing Turkey in a
pivotal strategic position in the region, but unfortunately this
“success” gains Turkey very little. It is generally agreed at this
point that both Israel and Turkey would prefer to see a moderate
Sunni government take over in Damascus. However, with the
appearance already of strong elements of al Qaeda or al
Qaeda-trained fighters among the anti-Assad Sunni population, the
chance for any sort of moderate government is diminished. Iran is
worried that it will lose its ally in Syria; Moscow is worried
about its naval facility at Tartus; NATO is worried about the
Eastern Mediterranean in general. And the Saudis are not sure they
want Ankara becoming the regional arbiter.
So much for Erdogan’s ambition to exert Turkish influence in the
Middle East. He has two more years to take the final steps in
positioning himself as Turkey’s modern-day Ataturk. According to
his own political party rules, he cannot succeed himself as prime
minister. Unfortunately for Erdogan’s ambition, the presidency does
not have adequate powers to influence and/or control government
actions. He must somehow combine the two posts in order to exercise
the state and government authority he appears to seek.
Erdogan’s domestic popularity has grown to the point where such
a quasi coup d’état could occur if the currently
sitting constitutional commission completes its work in his favor
by its scheduled date of January 1, 2013. This timing might play
into the politics of a Turkey influenced by the Syrian conflict,
but the opposite could also be true. In years past, another prime
minister could have turned to the military to assure the result he
desired. That is just what Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sworn to
change, and this is the dilemma he faces. It’s one thing to aspire
to be an “Ataturk,” and another to be one.