Turkey's not-so-subtle shift on
Syria By M K Bhadrakumar
An old story from Istanbul in the Ottoman
era mentions a Turkish imam who killed a Christian
and confessed the crime, whereupon he was advised
by the judge to talk things over with the mufti
who told him privately that a good Muslim never
admitted felony against infidels and he should
simply recant his confession.
advised the greatly confused pious imam that a lie
was feasible under the Koran and all he needed to
do to remit his sin for speaking untruth was to
feed bread to dogs.
The dogs in the
Turkish Mediterranean resort of Antalya had a
feast of bread on Tuesday. The feast became
unavoidable following the conclave in Antalya on
Monday of Syrian opposition
figures who seek to overthrow
the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Turkish Foreign
Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has categorically denied
that Ankara is sliding away from its earlier
stance of opposing regime change in Damascus.
The conclave at Antalya was entitled
"Change in Syria". Ankara would go ballistic if a
neighboring country did to it such a thing. The
conclave at Antalya didn't happen accidentally,
either. It was well-planned. Turkish authorities
allowed it to go ahead but with one caveat: no
Kurdish political parties would be invited. The
Syrian opposition activists obliged Ankara's wish.
The conclave openly sought a regime change
in Syria. The only discord was that it couldn't
make up its mind whether a future Syria should
remain secular. The participants upheld the
principles of Syria's territorial integrity and
rejected foreign military intervention but,
significantly, invited international organizations
to work toward ending the bloodshed in their
They also decided to form a
31-member advisory committee, which would operate
as a government in exile. A nine-member executive
committee has been tasked with preparing a roadmap
for future activities. Conceivably, these steering
bodies might be based in Turkey.
maintained that Ankara just couldn't do anything
to stop the conclave being held since Turkey is a
"free and democratic country". He argued with
aplomb that Ankara strives to simultaneously
maintain "ties of trust" with the Assad regime and
"ties of love" with the Syrian people.
Turkish government has kept up the stance that it
seeks to nudge Assad - with whom Turkish Prime
Minister Recep Erdogan claims an abiding
friendship - to abjure the use of force and
instead listen to the voice of the Syrian people
and embark on a course of comprehensive reforms.
Ankara frequently expresses disappointment
that Assad is not listening to its sincere
counseling but is devising own methods to deal
with the violence. At the same time, Ankara also
opposes foreign intervention in Syria. The stance
vaguely resembles Ankara's initial position with
regard to Muammar Gaddafi and Libya - that is,
before Turkey's volte face and its decision
to participate in the intervention by the
"coalition of the willing" under the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization. The major difference
with Libya is, as Erdogan put it, Syria is a
"domestic issue" for Turkey. Ankara is
petrified of an outbreak of civil war in Syria,
given its potential for spill over.
(Alawite-dominated territories that used to be
part of Syria today form Turkey's border region
with Syria.) Proceeding from this consideration,
Turkey seeks a peaceful democratic transition.
Whether a reformed system can still be under
Assad's leadership or not has been left unspoken.
Turkey has refrained from identifying with
the sanctions against Syria imposed by the United
States and European Union. Erdogan is on record
rather cryptically that "it is too early to make a
decision [about ousting Assad], as the final
decision will be the prerogative of the people of
Syria". Turkey seems to anticipate a mediatory
role for itself at some point.
insists that Assad is a sincere person but is
surrounded by wolves entrenched within the state
apparatus. Curiously, the Syrian opposition
overlooks Ankara's professed warmth toward Assad.
Maybe, they do not take it to be a genuine
However, Erdogan speaks to Assad
frequently on the phone and the conversations
sometimes stretch over an hour and the two leaders
are extremely polite toward one another with the
youthful leader in Damascus explaining in detail
what is all on his mind for political reform and
the Turkish prime minister exhorting him to move
Ankara claims credit for prompting
Assad to announce the recent amnesty for political
prisoners. Erdogan said on television, "I told him
that I asked him, as a brother, to take a
courageous step ... I told him that he should
declare a general amnesty because it would bring
such a great relief. I said that and, thank God,
he declared the amnesty two days later."
But the intriguing part still remains
beyond explanation. The Antalya conclave included
prominent Syrian figures who could one day form
the nucleus of a successor regime in Damascus -
prominent intellectuals, tribal chieftains,
think-tankers and so on. According to the Israeli
intelligence website, Erdogan has ordered his
government officials to cut ties with the Assad
regime and the Antalya conclave is an indication
of which way the wind is blowing.
too, seems to be signaling to Ankara that this is
a game both can play. He has invited
representatives of those Kurdish parties that were
kept out of the Antalya conclave to visit him in
Damascus over a cup of Turkish coffee.
Invitation has been extended to 12 Kurdish
parties, including the outlawed Kurdistan Workers'
Party (which, incidentally, has a Turkish branch)
and the Democratic Unity Party. These parties have
been historically kept at arm's length by Ankara.
They have gleefully accepted Assad's
invitation and they hope to present a proposal to
Assad on the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous
region near the border with Turkey.
that is dynamite. Meanwhile, Assad has announced
that his amnesty for political prisoners would
also include Kurdish separatist activists and that
he is open to giving Syrian citizenship to 500,000
stateless Kurds. Assad is yet to indicate when the
proposed meeting with the Kurdish leaders will
take place. He is virtually telling Ankara to do
some hard thinking and not to force his hands.
Damascus enjoys the tactical advantage
that the Turkish vector of the Kurdish problem is
far more acute than the Syrian (or Iranian)
vectors. Alienation runs deep among the Kurds in
eastern Turkey and if Kurdish nationalism rears
its head from safe havens within Syria, Turkey can
easily anticipate its own house catching fire.
So, the question remains: why is Turkey
playing with fire? A variety of factors are
working on the Turkish mind. First and foremost,
Saudi Arabia's influence is conditioning the
Turkish thinking toward the upheaval in the Middle
East as a whole.
which is Saudi-backed, has been consistently
critical of Assad and gives big coverage to the
Syrian opposition. "Green money" is a powerful
tool for the Saudi regime to influence the Turkish
elites. Turkey seeks investments by the wealthy
Arabs, who are also unsure about the policies of
the Western countries.
The "Salafi" angle
no doubt binds Saudis and Turks. The ruling AKP
(Justice and Development Party) in Turkey has
pronounced Islamist leanings and is close to the
Saudi royal family. Three-fourths of Syrian
population subscribe to Salafi faith while the
regime is dominated by Alawites who from only 16%
of the population. To compound matters, Turkey
also has an Alawite minority.
Syria has a
natural claim as a leader of the Arab world.
Turkey would prefer a weak Syria as its neighbor
over which it can exercise hegemony. Despite the
bonhomie in the inter-state relations in the
recent years, there are very serious border
disputes and quarrels over water-sharing which are
dormant just below the surface.
may even prefer the Muslim Brotherhood, which is
the best organized Syrian political force, to
prevail in a leadership role in a successor
regime. To be sure, geopolitics comes into play.
Syria's strong axis with Iran under Assad's
leadership tilts the regional balance against
Turkey. Ankara sees Syria as a rival competing for
influence in Iraq.
Syria's hold over the
Hamas leadership limits the scope for Turkey to
play any meaningful role in the Palestinian
problem. Again, Syria and Iran's combined clout
with Hezbollah edges out Turkey from being a
player in Lebanon.
In short, Syria stands
right in the way of an expansion of Turkish
influence in the Middle East. The present ruling
party - so-called "neo-Ottomans" - in Turkey,
finds this particularly frustrating as it harbors
pretensions of being the inheritors of the Ottoman
legacy in the Middle East. In short, Syria blocks
Turkish ambitions as a Middle Eastern regional
power that Europe will learn to respect and woo.
The Grand Mufti of Ankara would know how
to atone for the ambiguities in Turkish polices
toward Assad. The dogs will have a field day.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a
career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His
assignments included the Soviet Union, South
Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan,
Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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