Syria: the end of Erdogan?
The crisis has created security challenges for a weakened Turkey
MANY POLITICAL analysts summarised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 15 years of rule as “everything has started in Syria and will end in Syria”.
Not long ago, Erdogan spent a family holiday with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. However, the honeymoon with Assad was short-lived as key officials of the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) exposed the invasion plan by saying he and members of his party will go to Damascus and “pray in the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque”.
After seven years of the bloody Syrian conflict, millions of Syrians became refugees and thousands lost their lives. Last week, Erdogan warned Russia and Iran of the consequences of their military action in Idlib.
Now, Europe and Turkey face new migration challenges. Collectively, it seems that the Syrian crisis has created national security challenges for economically weakened Turkey.
Why has Erdogan been so aggressive towards Assad since the start of the civil war in Syria? Then, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu introduced the “Zero problems with neighbours” policy.
Erdogan and Davutoglu took the initiative by following peaceful diplomacy with Armenia, Cyprus, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Greece to solve long-standing issues between them.
During the 2000s, European leaders fully supported Erdogan, who limited military power and took the democratic step towards EU membership.
The 2011 general election in Turkey was a turning point for the AKP, which won 50% of the votes in the third consecutive victory since 2002.
After consolidating power, the AKP slowed down reforms in Turkey and started to turn back to its previous Islamist ideology.
In 2011, the AKP’s Istanbul party leader said that from now on, people must choose a stance: whether to be with the AKP or against it. This was the early signal of the regime-change project in the country.
With the Arab Spring, Erdogan openly supported opposition armed groups in Syria, Libya, and Egypt. Turkey’s well-known TV personality and former editor-in-chief Can Dündar, who received the Golden Pen Award in Durban at the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers congress, exposed links between Turkish intelligence and the arms trade in relation to a Syrian opposition group.
At first, Erdogan denied sending arms to Syria, saying these trucks were carrying humanitarian goods for Turkmen groups in Syria. Opposition MP Enis Berberoglu and Dündar now face life sentences for revealing footage of arms deliveries to Syria.
Some Western countries, with Turkey, have supported opposition groups in Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Today, these groups have lost ground in many parts of Syria and are now stranded in Idlib. Russia and Iran fully back Assad’s forces in Idlib.
Tehran surprisingly put out a live broadcast during the last Astana Summit and the world watched the discussion between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan. Erdogan warned Moscow and Tehran about possible civilian casualties under the Idlib operation and offered a ceasefire.
Putin rejected Erdogan’s request saying there are no representatives of the armed opposition at the table, citing al-Nusra Front and Islamic State. He also noted the Syrian army was absent from the summit.
Syrian and Russian forces start to bomb Idlib just after the Astana Summit. Interestingly, a few days after the summit, Erdogan changed his rhetoric and criticised IS and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which operates in Idlib.
In recent years, the financial and migration crises in Europe already provided golden opportunities for nationalist and far-right political parties on the continent and have made significant electoral gains in Germany, Slovenia, Italy, Germany, Austria, France, Hungary, Poland and Sweden.
Since the Syrian conflict, Turkey has hosted more than 5 million Syrian refugees. Many Turks say Syrian refugees threaten Turkey’s social fabric and ethnic balance.
The EU signed a refugee agreement to the value of €3 billion (R51bn) with the AKP government to stop the migration flow from Turkey to Europe.
The Islamist AKP government largely welcomed Syrians by providing good health care services and by paying monthly salaries to refugees.
Thousands of Syrian companies operate in Turkey now and the bulk of these don’t pay tax. As the economic crisis hit Turkey and the lira lost a historic 40% of its value against the US dollar, Turkish nationalist groups have started to target Syrian refugees.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking at the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) parliamentary group meeting in Ankara in this January 2018 file photo.