I do not know to what extent Turkish officials understand how much damage they have suffered in the Arab world as a result of Syria; the issue itself and Turkish stances relating to it, in addition to what preceded it. However, I am sure that the Turks are more capable than others at calculating their own interests, and they know they have an important role to play that they have yet to undertake, and we do not understand why.
The story here precedes the events in Syria by years. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan has always been interested in the Arab world and keen to participate positively in it, but he began on the wrong foot when he previously agreed to support al-Assad’s Syria in its foreign battles, as well as enthusiastically supporting Iran with its nuclear program. He later went on to correct these stances when the truth became clear.
Erdogan, with his charismatic leadership personality, won over frustrated Arab hearts firstly during a televised conference in Davos three years ago. At the time, he issued strong retorts to Israeli President Shimon Peres, launching attacks on Peres himself and Israel’s policy of occupation. He then threw his microphone away and angrily left his place, in the name of the Arab cause. This was followed by Turkey’s decision to send ships along with European activists to break the Gaza blockade, and when they were attacked by Israeli forces in international waters, Erdogan threatened and pledged that the Israelis would pay dearly for the attack on Turkish ships and the killing of Turkish citizens. Subsequently, his picture was held aloft in Arab demonstrations and he became an Arab star. However, Erdogan’s error was that he raised Arab expectations and yet did nothing except cease joint military exercises with Israel.
The biggest disappointment was Syria. The Turkish government adopted strong positions against the Bashar al-Assad regime and issued consecutive threats against it, claiming that the Turks would not stand by idly in front of the massacres being committed. However, Turkey remained idle across the border for more than a year after the massacres began.
Then it was noticeable that the Turkish Prime Minister, along with his Foreign Minister, flew to Burma and had their photos taken with displaced Muslims. Erdogan made promises to them, just as he promised the Syrians and the Palestinians before. This was two days ahead of the Islamic Summit in Mecca, but in the end Turkey did nothing. Some commented criticizing that it was just another public relations campaign.
From Israel to Syria to Burma, Turkey has left many of those who had hung their hopes on it disappointed. Here we must objectively wonder are we expecting too much from the Turks are we, as usual, an easy victim? Can the Arabs still be won over by a few passionate media speeches, as Khomeini and Nasrallah did in the past? I think it’s a mixture of the two. Erdogan is a populist politician who knows how to gain the applause of the masses, and for this he wins his political and electoral battles. At the same time, we, as Arabs, have expectations greater than Turkey’s ability, or we don’t take its circumstances fully into consideration.
Erdogan is known for his religious and political moderation, and through his leadership – whether of his party or the government – he has proven that he possesses two main attributes: winning over public opinion and at the same time not getting involved in activities that are beyond Turkey’s ability.
The radical Islamists who came out in their thousands to welcome him at Cairo airport were later shocked by his political speech commanding them to adopt a secular political approach to the state, and anger grew towards him in both Egypt and Tunisia. The truth is that Erdogan and Turkey’s Islamists differ in their perception of the role of religion and the state compared to their Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi counterparts in the Arab Spring states. In fact, there is a wide cultural gap between them, for Erdogan is among the admirers of Ibn Arabi, whilst the Brotherhood and the Salafis follow Hassan al-Banna and Ibn Taymiyyah respectively.
There is still a great hope that Turkey under Erdogan will have a significant role in Syria, and in saving the Syrian people, with greater urgency and momentum. Turkey is stronger militarily than all the Arab states, and has a direct border with Syria, unlike Saudi Arabia or Egypt, and therefore it has a significant interest in changing the regime there to satisfy the majority of the Syrian people, so as to ensure the stability of the region and Turkey’s protection.
The hope is that Erdogan’s government expands its activities in support of the Syrian opposition. We know that they were the first to support the rebels, without which perhaps the Syrian revolution would be over by now, but we also know that rumors about Turkey coming under Western pressure to prevent it from supporting the rebels further are just lies, and the opposite is more likely to be true. Of course, this does not negate the fact that the countries of the region and Western governments are not keen to support any extremist or jihadist Syrian groups, and this is an understandable and justifiable position, but these groups only represent a small proportion of the total map of the Syrian revolution. Furthermore, we are aware of Turkey’s complex considerations with regards to the Syrian issue, and the potentially negative repercussions if it were to intervene strongly. For example, Iran could create problems inside Turkey and support the armed Kurdish opposition there, which used to be based in Syria. Yet Turkey should not be overly concerned with these considerations, because we know that the fall of the al-Assad regime is in Turkey’s best interests. A democratic Syrian regime with moderate leaders, and the stability and unity of Syrian territory rather than the emergence separate Alawite or Kurdish states are all in the interests of the Turks just as they are in the interests of the Syrians. Iran and Russia, the al-Assad regime’s current allies, would simply have to accept to deal with the new Syrian regime and respect Turkey, which will become a stronger and more positive force as a result.