Turkey’s role in the Middle East – The return of the Ottomans or just a merchant of death?

Since the beginning of the fighting in Syria in 2011, Turkey has been determined to remove the government of Bashar al-Assad. The explicit goal was to install a Sunni led government in Damascus. This in turn implied a departure from the “zero problems with neighbours” policy doctrine in Turkey, dating back to Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. In fact, the shift in foreign policy has led to a “from zero problems to zero friends” situation for Turkey. Additionally, observers of middle-eastern foreign policy have labelled the recent interest in middle-eastern regime change as “Neo-Ottoman foreign policy” referring to the history of the Ottoman Empire as an important part of President Erdogan’s Ideology. Based on religious objectives, namely to establish itself as a regional hegemon of Sunni Muslims, Turkey’s foreign policy has become more confrontational. However, since the Russian intervention successfully allowed the Syrian Arab Army to take back strategic locations, Turkey has ended up in a catch 22 situation. How did this happen, what are the consequences and is it justified to speak of the return of the Ottomans?

During the last weeks, the internal conflict in Turkey has reached a new level. Bombings and attacks on security forces, the government’s takeover of the largest opposition newspaper as well as the political attack on the constitutional court have raised concerns, regarding the stability of the country and it’s increasingly authoritarian government. Nevertheless, all these issues are part of a process which started in 2011, when the kemalist leadership of the army resigned and admitted its defeat to the ACP. Since then, the freedom of the press has been restricted, critical journalists have been imprisoned and the control of the governing party on the domestic institutions has been strengthened, resulting in a transfer of power from the government to the President and a more authoritarian structure of the country’s political system.

On the external front, the war in Syria has had its spill-overs to Turkish territory. The recent bombings in Ankara carried out by a Kurdish terrorist cell, showed that the war in Syria could escalate at any time again. As an immediate reaction to the bombings, the Turkish army reacted with airstrikes on Iraqi territory held by Kurdish militias, as well as with artillery fire that hit villages and the former Syrian Menagh airbase in northern Syria. The territory, which had recently been recaptured by the Syrian Arab Army and the American backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) had been under control of al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat-al-Nusra, and other jihadi groups for almost 3 years.

Taking this into account, Turkey’s role in the ongoing conflict in Syria has long been neglected. Disregarding the fact that numerous foreign jihadists have used Turkey as the gate into Syria, Ankara has always presented itself as a supporter of the moderate opposition. This image started to crack however, as the Islamic state tried to conquer Kobani in 2014. During the siege, Turkish military forces remained passive observers, despite international critique. In addition, they even blocked supply for the encircled defenders, leaving the defenders as well as the civilian population on the brink of death under the siege of the Islamic State. Ultimately the city would have fallen without the American led coalition intervening at the last moment, dropping air supplies and conducting airstrikes against IS positions.

However after the downing of the Russian Sukhoi-24 fighter jet in November 2015, journalists have recently started to pay more attention to Turkey’s hidden activities in northern Syria. Apart from allowing jihadi fighters from all over the world to cross its borders, stockpiles of supplies such as medication and Turkish military equipment have been found in the cities that came back under the control of the Syrian Arab Army. Furthermore, as a result of the military defeat in Latakia province several hundred fighters mostly linked to Ahrar-al-Sham and Jabhat-al-Nusra, have retreated into Turkish territory or to towns that are within the range of Turkish artillery. Given these facts, it must be acknowledged that Turkey is one of the major players apart from the Gulf States that continue to fuel the ongoing conflict and thus representing a major obstacle to peace in Syria.

At the same time, the ceasefire with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which has been broken in 2015 has resulted in a civil-war in eastern Turkey. Since then, dozens of soldiers and police officers have been killed as well as hundreds of PKK fighters, according to Turkish government reports. Leaked pictures from the warzone show battle tanks and armoured vehicles firing into densely populated urban areas, as well as bullet holes and partly destroyed buildings, making civil casualties likely. Numbers about these casualties however are not reported and information about the true extent of the fighting is suppressed by the government. Journalists who try to critically report about the fighting are either imprisoned without any specific reason or face other consequences, ranging from employment bans to physical violence such as the case of Syrian reporter Rami Jarrah shows. The latest World Press Freedom Index of reporters without borders also reflects this, ranking Turkey on place 149, just one place ahead of Congo.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long been an important actor in the Syrian conflict. Picture: Global Panorama, Flickr.

Another dimension is Ankara’s underhanded role in the negotiations with the European Union. On the one hand Ankara needs the European Union as insurance against Russia; on the other hand it exploits its strategical position, threatening the EU to use Syrian refugees as a weapon if the EU does not stop to interfere in Turkey’s domestic affairs. In this regard, the upcoming EU-Turkey agreement on how to handle the influx of refugees into Europe should be regarded with scepticism if Turkey continues to violate human rights and democratic principles.

Albeit, with the jihadi rebel groups losing ground in northern Syria to the Syrian Arab Army, as well as increasing scepticism from the European Union regarding Turkey’s role in the conflict, the country basically has two choices. First, intensifying its support, together with its allied partner Saudi-Arabia, for jihadist groups by entering the war with own ground troops in case of a failed ceasefire. Secondly, to admit that its efforts to replace the Government in Damascus have failed, in order to shift the focus to its home affairs and seek a truce with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Which path will Turkey choose, the former, resembling the return of the Ottomans; or the latter, which could eventually be a window of opportunity for peace and stability in the region?

Benjamin Läpple

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