Why is the Turkish government acting so aggressively against the Assad regime in Syria?
Perhaps Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes that lobbing artillery shells into Syria will help bring a satellite government to power in Damascus. Maybe he expects that sending a Turkish war plane into Syrian air space or forcing down a Syrian civilian plane en route from Russia will win him favor in the West and bring in NATO to intervene. Conceivably, it’s all a grand diversion from an imminent economic crisis due to borrowing too much.
Erdogan’s actions fit into a context going back a half-century. During the Cold War, Ankara stood with Washington as a member of NATO while Damascus served as the Cuba of the Middle East, a highly reliable client state for Moscow. Bad Turkish-Syrian relations also have local sources, including a border dispute, disagreement over water resources, and Syrian backing of the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group. The two states reached the brink of war in 1998, but the Assad government’s timely capitulation averted armed conflict.
A new era began in November 2002 when Erdogan’s AKP, a clever Islamist party that avoids terrorism and global-caliphate rants, replaced the center-right and -left parties that long had dominated Ankara. Governing competently and overseeing an unprecedented economic boom, the AKP saw its share of the electorate grow from one-third in 2002 to one-half in 2011. It was on track to achieving Erdogan’s presumed goal of undoing the Ataturk revolution and bringing sharia to Turkey.
Feeling its oats, the AKP abandoned Washington’s protective umbrella and struck out on an independent neo-Ottoman course, aiming to be a regional power as in centuries past. With regard to Syria, this meant ending decades-old hostilities and winning influence through good trade and other relations, symbolized by joint military exercises, Erdogan and Bashar Assad vacationing together, and a bevy of their ministers literally raising the barrier that had closed their mutual border.
These plans started unraveling in January 2011 when the Syrian people woke from 40 years of Assad despotism and agitated, at first nonviolently, then violently, for the overthrow of their tyrant. Erdogan initially offered constructive political advice to Assad, which the latter rebuffed in favor of violent repression. In response, the Sunni Erdogan emotionally denounced the Alawi Assad and began assisting the largely Sunni rebel forces. As the conflict became more ruthless, sectarian, and Islamist, effectively becoming a Sunni–Alawi civil war, with 30,000 dead, many times that number injured, and even more displaced, Turkish refuge and aid became indispensable to the rebels.
It is now clear that initially seemed like a masterstroke was in fact Erdogan’s first major misstep. His jailing of much of the Turkish military leadership on the basis of outlandish conspiracy theories has left him with a less-than-effective fighting force. Unwelcome Syrian refugees have crowded into Turkish border towns and beyond. Turks overwhelmingly oppose the war policy vis-à-vis Syria, with especially powerful opposition coming from the Alevis, a religious community making up 15 to 20 percent of Turkey’s population, distinct from Syria’s Alawis but sharing a Shiite heritage with them. Assad took revenge by reviving support for the PKK, whose escalating violence creates a major domestic problem for Erdogan. Indeed, Kurds — who missed their chance when the Middle East was carved up after World War I — may be the major winners from the current hostilities; for the first time, the outlines of a Kurdish state with Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi, and even Iranian components can be imagined.
Damascus still has a great patron in Moscow, where the government of Vladimir Putin offers its assistance via armaments and United Nations vetoes. Plus, Assad benefits from unstinting, brutal Iranian aid, which continues despite the mullah regime’s deep economic problems. In contrast, Ankara may still belong, formally, to NATO and enjoy the theoretical privilege of its famous Article 5, which promises that a military attack on one member country will lead to “such action as . . . necessary, including the use of armed force,” but NATO heavyweights show no intention of intervening in Syria.
A decade of success went to Erdogan’s head, tempting him into a Syrian misadventure that could undermine his popularity. He might yet learn from his mistakes and backtrack, but for now the padishah of Ankara is doubling down on his jihad against the Assad regime, driving hard for its collapse and his salvation.
To answer my opening question: Turkish bellicosity results primarily from one man’s ambition and ego. Western states should stay completely away and let him be hoist with his own petard.