I have previously made it clear that I find Turkey’s Syria policy favorable overall. Although I studied political science at university, I prefer to view the world through the goggles of universal human rights and the rule of law as opposed to adopting a cold and detached realpolitik perspective of the world, human beings and my country.
I don’t see this world as an evil place where the powerful set the rules of the game, and power can only be attained through evil deeds. I believe this is a very old lie, and due to its lengthy past, has come to be regarded as true.
Like people, states too have their unique characters. Thus, a state’s character is its culture filtered through history. This character may have an emphasis on consensus or democratic values or on corruption imbued with totalitarianism and violence. To understand this, you can just have a look at the Syrian crisis.
Bashar al-Assad refrained from sharing political power with the people although he had the opportunity to do so. He chose the wrong path in spite of the cases of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in the wake of the Arab Spring. This was because he lacked the above-mentioned infrastructure of democratic values in order to realize that he had the opportunity to leave his mark on history as a leader who paved the way to his country’s democratization.
Of course, I know Assad has limited power and Syria has a powerful deep state. But this does not mean that Assad does not share the destructive views of the Baath party and the Syrian Intelligence. Assad chose the side of the totalitarian regime and he will pay the price for doing so with disgrace, and perhaps with his life, however extended this period may be. And there is no turning back for him. In particular, by shooting down the Turkish jet, he made it clear he would stick to this path with much rigor.
Short-term profit for Syria
If we return to the cold political rules and try to understand the game, it can be said that the latest crisis amounted to a plus on the Syrian score card in the short run.
Another situation that causes Turkey to lose face in the Middle East would be the last thing Turkey would need in the wake of the Mavi Marmara attack -- the 2010 Israeli attack on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that left nine Turks dead. Just as it failed to calculate the costs of Mavi Marmara’s voyage to Gaza, Turkey went wrong by not acting meticulously in ensuring that its jets do not enter Syrian airspace since our neighbor is in a state of quasi-war, which makes this mistake hard to forgive despite the evil nature of Damascus. So apparently Turkey couldn’t predict that Assad might go too far in with his response. Another explanation is that our military’s management is seriously flawed. I don’t want to think about the likelihood of a conspiracy similar to the Uludere plot -- in which 34 civilians were mistaken for terrorists and killed by military air strikes in Şırnak’s Uludere district due to false intelligence.
Yet, if Turkey could have correctly analyzed Assad’s situation, it would have realized that his dictatorship is collapsing despite the Russian and Iranian backing. Independent observers verify that Assad has already lost to the resistance about 60 percent of the Syrian territories. Recently, there were clashes between Syrian opposition and pro-Assad forces at a point very close to the presidential palace in the political capital of the country, Damascus. In Aleppo, the commercial capital of the country, insurgents are very powerful. Finally, a high-ranking Syrian pilot flew a Syrian jet to Jordan, and he was followed by three other pilots who removed their army insignias and sought refuge in Jordan. All of these signs should have told Turkey that Assad had been pushed into a very tight corner and needed a serious move to change this.
In the same framework, it should be noted that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal claimed that Turkey was providing weapons and money to the insurgents in collaboration with the CIA, which has been conducting intelligence work so that this support does not go to al-Qaida militants. The Turkish foreign ministry denies these claims. But apparently these US papers are not having any difficulty in gleaning information from US authorities. And Assad’s accusations against Turkey fit well into this picture.
Just as he is sure to get Russian and Iranian support, Assad is also sure that Turkey is alone in its Syria policy. US President Barack Obama even prevented Israel from striking against Iran. This is because he is focused on the nearing presidential elections and does not want to think about any other issue for the time being. For him, it is more important whether or not his health reform bill will be approved by the Supreme Court than the Syrian tragedy. Therefore, a US-led UN or NATO intervention against Syria is not on the US agenda until the elections. This also applies to the UK. In France, Nicholas Sarkozy, who had pursued a more proactive policy as seen in the Libyan intervention, is no longer the president. He was replaced by François Hollande, who is more concerned about his fight against German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany over the Euro crisis. I had noted this during the French presidential elections. The French socialists have always favored a passive foreign policy.
It appears Assad has correctly analyzed this and Turkey’s solitariness. He knew that Turkey could not declare war against him if he shot down a Turkish jet, and he implemented this plan thanks to a fault from the Turkish side. In this way, he was able to send a strong message to the world with virtually no cost: if you oppose me, I am ready to put the Middle East ablaze. I am not like Muammar Gaddafi. And Syria is not like Libya. I have a powerful army and I can defend myself.
Russia treading carefully
Moreover, Russia does not intend to repeat the mistake it did vis-à-vis Libya by losing its area of influence there. No one can say Vladimir Putin makes a better dictator than Assad. The Russian base at Tartus, the Syria’s port city, is so precious to the Greater Russia, which Putin is trying to revive that Russia will not risk losing it, particularly given that fact that it has upgraded the basis with the state-of-the-art technology. If we analyze the harsh messages Turkey is sending via Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the light of the foregoing, we must note that Erdoğan is fuming against Assad’s arrogantly successful attempt at undermining Turkey’s image. From a human perspective, this can be understood. But it should not lead to Turkey’s being dragged into Assad’s trap. Departing from the mainstream analysts, I would like to stress that the prime minister’s strongly-worded statement that implies that Turkey will openly support the insurgents and that Syrian military components will be shot down at the first encounter are very dangerous, and as a matter of fact, emotional. This wording and strategy both portrays Turkey as an impotent country and has the potential of triggering war at any moment. To flame a Middle East-wide sectarian war via Turkey would only serve the interests of Assad, who would otherwise go away in perhaps six months. Now, we are just one step away from this possibility. Turkey has put itself under a big burden. If Turkey strikes Syria in any provocation, it will totally lose the Middle East. Has this been calculated well? I don’t know. Are we planning to fight Syria? Erdoğan says “no” to this. “We don’t want a war,” he says, but the current situation is just one step away from war. And this sounds to me a dangerous contradiction.
Furthermore, a war against Syria will put on the table the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) issue, the high current deficit, inflation and dependence on Russia and Iran for our energy. Prime Minister Erdoğan is doing this at a time when the elections are nearing and the government’s hasty efforts to abolish the specially authorized courts have created much concern among its voter base.
It is a good policy to go to the brink of war although the US dare not start it and Turkey doesn’t want to get involved in it? I think Turkey is having difficulties in correcting calculating its increased power and proportionately translating this power into domestic and foreign policy. As such, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is almost at the point of no return.