Through the past two-year period of turmoil in Syria, President Bashar Al-Assad has shown himself to be a master tactician who consistently outmaneuvered his regional adversaries. Syria has a tough neighborhood. Al-Assad’s regional adversaries are formidable people in their own ways. But he invariably pre-empted them, staying one step ahead of them, repeatedly forcing them onto the back foot and throwing into disarray their best-laid plots.
That’s what makes his latest interview last week with the Turkish television channel Halk rather significant. Al-Assad came down very hard on Turkey’s Syria policies and on Prime Minister Recep Erdogan personally. He warned Ankara of a blowback of terrorism that it has been promoting in Syria – «In the near future these terrorists will have an impact on Turkey. Turkey will pay very dearly…»
"All that he [Erdogan] says about Syria and its people is a heap of lies, that is all … Erdoğan is doing nothing but supporting the terrorists," said al-Assad.
On the face of it, al-Assad’s warning came in the wake of the growing presence of al-Qaeda-linked rebels in the region close to the Syrian border with Turkey and against the backdrop of persistent reports that there is a nexus between some of these extremist groups and Ankara as part of the latter’s stratagem to prop up a counterweight to the Syrian Kurds.
The Turks by and large do not want to get involved in what they see as Syria’s internal affairs. The secular-minded Turks abhor Erdogan’s sectarian politics in particular. There is also growing concern among the Turkish elites that the al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups are gaining strength in Syria. The prominent Turkish columnist and opinion maker Murat Yetkin wrote in the Hurriyet newspaper in the weekend,
«Unfortunately, there is little room for optimism under the current circumstances in the Middle East (in the greater sense) where, especially after the rise and fall of the Arab Spring wave, the Islamic movements with rising popularity are not the moderate ones who stay away from terrorism, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The popularity of al-Qaeda affiliated jihadist groups is gaining strength.
«With the Arab Spring having failed in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya and in the disastrous example of Syria, al-Qaeda is gaining ground, forming regional battlefields to seize power in places like Mali, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria, by merging its fighters from neighboring areas and countries.»
Erdogan has been in denial mode all along, but lately his rhetoric is changing. A defining moment would have been the attack on the Turkish embassy in Mogadishu in July by the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab organization. Meanwhile, other factors also would have worked on his thinking, especially the western pressure on him to snap Turkey’s clandestine links with the extremist groups in Syria.
At any rate, following al-Shabaab’s attack in Nairobi two weeks ago, Erdogan has openly come out for the first time «against all kinds of extreme ends» in Syria and he mentioned the names of al-Qaeda and the al-Nusra Front. Last week he called them terrorists. A poignant moment has indeed arisen.
As Sedat Ergin, the influential columnist wrote last week, «The irony is that Turkey provided important support to these groups’ transition to Syria and other activities, with the perception that ‘the end of toppling al-Assad justifies the means’… Now the situation is as follows: On what scale this verbal position [by Erdogan] actually be implemented, for example on the Turkey-Syria border».
Meanwhile, Turkey’s domestic politics is hotting up and Erdogan also chose the weekend to announce he’d run in the presidential election next year if his party asked him to do so. But there has been speculation lately that the incumbent president Abdullah Gul (who also was a founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party) might as well seek a second term.
Erdogan’s disastrous Syria policies may come to haunt him in next year’s election, especially if any ugly security situation develops on the border with Syria involving the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups that are establishing themselves there.
The Turkish leadership has been speaking in innuendos regarding Ankara’s policies toward Syria. This surged in a major policy speech by President Gul on Friday at Istanbul. Syria was the topic of the speech, embedded within certain meaningful remarks regarding the balance of power in world politics and democratization process in the new Middle East.
Gul underscored that the international system «will enjoy a reasonable balance» only if the United States, which is the biggest military power but «not the sole player in the global order» would have an «accord» with other «leading actors». Most certainly, he had Russia and Iran on his mind.
In fact, Gul welcomed US-Iran talks as a positive factor for the resolution of the Syrian crisis. Secondly, Gul stressed, «It would not be realistic to expect political systems, which will pave the way for democratic progress and culture to emerge in a single stroke. In no country can the transition to democracy be achieved overnight. This requires a certain process… the pace of democracy is closely related to the special conditions and internal dynamics of societies.»
Interestingly, Gul estimated that the «most critical country in the transformation process» in the Middle East is not Syria, but Egypt, where, he lamented, «the historic journey to democracy… has been interrupted.»
Significantly, he cited the existence of radical and extremist groups in Syria and noted this has «caused some hesitations in the US and Western public.» Gul added, «The Syria issue is stuck in the dilemma about whether Syria will gradually come under the control of the radical and extreme groups or Baath-like regime.»
But Gul warned that «this approach might further prolong the existing deadlock in Syria.» He, therefore, proposed an «exit road» for the international community through a «comprehensive diplomatic and political solution,» which leaves no scope for «diplomatic ambiguity» and is based on a transition process «with a tangible calendar and modality» towards establishing «a new administration» involving «all parts of the Syrian people.»
Gul’s speech was addressed to a regional audience at an international conference in Istanbul. It contained new thinking. His remarks on Syria were striking for their complete absence of rhetoric. He never once singled out the al-Assad for criticism. Gul even avoided apportioning blame for the chemical weapons attacks of August 21 near Damascus.
But, equally, Gul was also addressing the Turkish opinion. His approach may not tally one hundred percent with the vast majority of Turkish public opinion that wants Ankara to altogether steer clear of the situation around Syria, but is closer to it than Erdogan’s policies.
Consensus Corporation, a Turkish consultancy with commendable track record, recently conducted a public opinion survey and came up with the finding that two-thirds of Turkish opinion does not support Erdogan’s handling of the conflict in Syria, whereas, a 2012 survey had showed an appreciable 44% support.
Of course, Erdogan continues to enjoy a high rating and the ruling party can be expected to romp home in the upcoming local bodies and parliamentary elections. The Turkish opposition fails to inspire, which works to Erdogan’s advantage on top of his approach to open talks with Kurdish separatists, which the Turkish public approves.
But the recent poll also showed that next only to the economy the main concern of the Turkish public is the issue of terrorism.
Is Turkey on the cusp of a rethink on Syria? Most certainly, if any further stimulus needed, the US Navy Seal’s operation to nab the long-sought al-Qaeda terror suspect Nzih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai in broad daylight on Saturday in Tripoli provides it. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization liberated Libya for the free world only a little over an year ago. Thoughtful Turks will be wondering what Syria portends.
Al-Assad’s timing couldn’t have been better. He touched a hugely sensitive chord, given the ground reality that anyone crossing to Turkey from Syrian territory today would have to pass through some check point or the other manned by the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. Curiously, his warning did not provoke anger in the public opinion, which seems to accept it as a statement of fact.