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October 21, 2012 4:37 am

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Syrian Misadventure

avatar by Daniel Pipes

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: wiki commons.

Why does the Turkish government act so aggressively against the Assad regime of Syria?

Perhaps Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 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. Conceivably, it’s all a grand diversion from imminent economic crisis due to borrowing too much.

Erdoğan’s actions fit into a context going back a half-century. During the Cold War, Ankara stood with Washington as a member of NATO even as Damascus served as Moscow’s Cuba of the Middle East, an arch-reliable client state. Bad Turkish-Syrian relations also had 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, when the Assad government’s timely capitulation averted armed conflict.

A new era began in November 2002 when Erdoğan’s AKP, a clever Islamist party that avoids terrorism and rants about a global caliphate, replaced the center-right and -left parties that long had dominated Ankara. Governing competently and overseeing an unprecedented economic boom, the AKP’s share of the electorate grew from one-third in 2002 to one-half in 2011. It was on track to achieving Erdoğan’s presumed goal of undoing the Atatürk revolution and bringing Shari’a to Turkey.

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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, Erdoğan and Bashar al-Assad vacationing together, and a bevy of their ministers literally raising the barrier that had closed their mutual border.

Starting in January 2011, these plans unraveled, as the Syrian people woke from forty years of Assad despotism and agitated, at first non-violently, then violently, for the overthrow of their tyrant. Erdoğan initially offered constructive political advice to Assad, which the latter rebuffed in favor of violent repression. In response, the Sunni Erdoğan emotionally denounced the Alawi Assad and began assisting the largely Sunni rebel force. As the conflict became more ruthless, sectarian, and Islamist, effectively becoming a Sunni-Alawi civil war, with 30,000 dead, many times that injured, and even more displaced, Turkish refuge and aid became indispensible to the rebels.

What initially seemed like a masterstroke has turned into Erdoğan’s first major misstep. The outlandish conspiracy theories he used to jail and cow the military leadership left him with a less-than-effective fighting force. Unwelcome Syrian refugees crowded into Turkish border towns and beyond. Turks overwhelmingly oppose the war policy vis-à-vis Syria, with special opposition coming from ‘Alevis, a religious community making up 15-20 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 Erdoğan. Indeed, Kurds – who missed their chance when the Middle East was carved up after World War I – may be the major winners from 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 power 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 Erdoğan’s head, tempting him into a Syrian misadventure that could undermine his popularity. He might yet learn from his mistakes and backtrack, but 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.

Mr. Pipes ( is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2012 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved. This article was originally published bu NRO.

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  • Jerry Hersch

    Jews arrived in America in the 1600s -But most arrived in the influx between 1895-and 1915..many later than that.In the two generations or so that have past Jews have Anglicized their names..forewent the Yiddish culture and language…but have never forgotten that they are Jews.
    So it is with the ethnic Turks of Syria and they were never uprooted and live in proximity to the core area of their heritage.

  • Jerry Hersch

    To understand the complexities one most also understand the Alawite situation.There are about 1.5 million Alawites in Syria (They are ethnic Arab and Assad’s people- and his principal supporters along with some Christian minorities).There are across the border in Turkey over 1 million Alawite-chiefly in the Hatay province(an area disputed over with Syria)..Hatay was awarded to Turkey after a questionable plebiscite.The Awawites in Syria live along the coast largely in cities an area also occupied by ethnic Turks.In Syria Idlib -including Aleppo is largely Turk in ethnicity.
    The Turkish Alawites in Hatay -as do the ethnic Turks in Syria want a homecoming

  • Jerry Hersch

    Turks have been a major and integral part of the Levant since before the conquest of Constantinople-in many areas they were the predominant group.

    There are many things to consider in this vis a vis the Israeli situation..from aliyah to irredentism-and beyond.

  • Jerry Hersch

    Almost every Syrian refugee in Turkey is of Turkish ancestry.

  • Jerry Hersch

    Perhaps it is that over 10% of Syria’s population is in actuality ethnic Turk.
    Being Sunni and Arabizes they are mistakenly included with the Sunni Arab population of Syria- They have however remained apart where they live, who they marry and which mosque they attend.
    At the partition of the Ottoman Empire Turks lived on both sides of the arbitrary line that was drawn cutting off the Levant from what was to become Turkey.
    Turks in the French mandate area had the option of moving north.-but the Ataturk reforms were an anathema to these religiously conservative Turks-they stayed in what was to become Syria.
    Over the next generation-they Arabized their names..for the most part gave up speaking Turkish (perhaps only about 100,000 do today)-but never forgot that they are Turks.
    The baathist revolution brough Ataturk type reforms to Syria making neither side of the border really acceptable.
    Now the more religiously tolerant Turkish regime is the more acceptable than Assad’s secular(and not pro Sunni)envronment.
    They are ready to be taken home

  • recep is right