Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Washington to drum up more direct NATO intervention in Syria’s conflict. The visit came in the wake of a twin car-bombing in the Turkish town of Reyhanli on 11 May in which more than 50 people were killed.
The background suggests that the Turkish government may have had a hand in that bombing in a desperate attempt to get NATO to extricate Ankara from a failed, and criminal, tactic of regime change in Damascus.
Within hours of the double car-bombing in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan laid the blame for the atrocity emphatically on Syrian state forces. In an angry tone of defiance, Erdogan vowed that his country would not be “dragged into the quagmire” of the war in Syria.
But the truth is that Turkey is already deeply embroiled in Syria’s more than two-year bloody conflict that by some estimates has claimed over 80,ooo lives.
In a forthright denial of any involvement in the Reyhanli massacre, the Syrian government pointed out with fair reason that the Turkish authorities should take responsibility for its belligerent foreign policy towards its southern neighbour.
The Erdogan government has indeed allowed its border crossings with Syria to become logistical hubs for NATO-backed militants to launch attacks against the Syrian army of President Bashar al-Assad.These militant groups, which comprise so-called jihadist mercenaries from several Arab and other countries, are also accused of targeting civilian populations with atrocious acts of terrorism, including no-warning car bombs in urban neighbourhoods.
Yes, it is true than hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled for sanctuary in Turkey, where the Ankara government is providing humanitarian relief. Some 400,000 Syrian refugees are estimated to be residing in Turkey since the conflict erupting in March 2011, in border towns like Reyhanli in Hatay Province, at a total cost of $50 million a month to Ankara.
Nevertheless, the Erdogan government has permitted porous borders for the free flow of weapons and fighters into Syria. Infuriatingly for Damascus, these militants are allowed to retreat back into Turkey by the Ankara authorities in order to regroup and re-arm.
Credible reports also say that the American CIA and other Western military intelligence agencies are providing the Syrian mercenaries with training and logistics from the NATO Incirlik base in Turkey’s Hatay Province…
In addition, Turkish military officers have been captured or killed in battles with the Syrian army over recent months, according to Syrian state media.
There are also claims that chemical weapons have been supplied from Turkish territory to the mercenaries in Syria. The latter claim, if proven, has a certain irony, since Turkey’s prime minister Erdogan has been one of the most vehement voices among NATO and regional allies accusing the Assad forces of deploying chemical weapons in March near the northern city of Aleppo.
In short, Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership is already bogged down in the Syrian quagmire. Moreover, Erdogan’s government has, through its policy choices and actions, largely created this appalling quagmire.
But the problem for the Turkish leader is that the evident NATO agenda of regime change in Damascus has not gone to plan. Instead of a relatively quick covert campaign of destabilization, as in Libya, the Assad regime has proven to be surprisingly recalcitrant. Indeed, the evidence is that the Syrian authorities are increasingly gaining the military upper hand against the NATO-backed mercenaries, despite the carnage and mayhem unleashed on that country.
This protracted regime-change operation has rebounded most harmfully for Turkey out all of the NATO protagonists. The refugee crisis is reckoned to have cost Ankara $1.5 billion so far; and with the numbers of refugees in Turkey alone projected to double by the end of the year that is placing an unsustainable burden on Turkey’s once bustling economy.
The mercurial Syrian conflict is also rebounding to destabilize Turkey’s internal security problems with the long-running Kurdish separatist insurgency in its southern regions.
And, ironically, the jihadist militants that Turkey has fomented have come back to bite the hand that feeds. Turkish border communities complain of banditry and criminality by these groups during their “rest-up” periods when they are not running amok inside Syria. Shop-keepers and other businesses in border areas of Turkey’s Hatay Province report of being harassed and looted by gun-wielding gangs who feel entitled to “spoils of war”.
The Erdogan government is paying a grievous political price for these various forms of blowback from its NATO intrigues in Syria. The three-times elected Erdogan has slumped in the polls among ordinary Turks. Public protests in Ankara and other Turkish cities have denounced his incitement of conflict in neighbouring Syria. Notably, even in the aftermath of the Reyhanli bombings, the Turkish public has directed its anger at Erdogan, not the alleged Syrian perpetrators. Regionally, too, Erdogan’s once-shining stature as an honest political broker has also taken a drubbing.
In recent days, while Erdogan was in Washington meeting President Barack Obama, the Turkish president Abdullah Gul visited the terror scene of Reyhanli. In a speech that bristled with exasperation, Gul denounced the international community for “symbolic rhetoric” and no action over Syria. By “international community” it was clear that Gul was referring obliquely to the US and other NATO partners, Britain and France.
Several analysts have said that what Erdogan was seeking from Obama was for the US to do more of the heavy lifting in the NATO regime-change operation in Syria. This would involve more direct US military supply to militants on the ground in Syria, the setting up of no-fly zones in Syria’s border areas, and for the US and its European allies to take in a share of the refugees. But, to the chagrin of Erdogan, the US seems to be playing a longer political game, placing its bets on the forthcoming political dialogue process being set up with Moscow next month in Geneva. That means no short-term relief for Turkey.
There is a discernible sense of frustration, if not desperation, in Ankara that it is being left to carry the can for NATO’s covert war on Syria. While Obama has demurred about evidence of the alleged Syrian chemical weapons, Erdogan blusters that the “red line has been crossed long ago”. One wonders why Turkey, if it feels so confident about its allegations of chemical weapons being used by Assad forces, it has not invoked NATO’s umbrella defence provisions? Perhaps, Erdogan knows that his senior NATO partners have no stomach for a messy full-blown intervention in Syria, and any NATO invocation by him would result in even more egg on his face.
The Erdogan government’s bind over Syria puts the Reyhanli bombing in significant context. Who has to gain from such an atrocity? Certainly not the Assad government in Damascus. It seems to be winning the war against the NATO-backed militants, and the notion that Damascus would sanction such a massacre, potentially triggering excruciating external repercussions, does not make sense.
However, ahead of Erdogan’s visit to Washington, that spectacular act of terrorism would strengthen his leverage to elicit more practical American support to alleviate Turkey’s acute strain. The hasty rush to point fingers at Damascus by Ankara within hours of the twin blasts suggests an unseemly desire to find a convenient culprit – regardless of incriminating evidence.
According to the Turkish daily, Hurriyet, the twin blasts in Reyhanli claimed 51 lives and destroyed more than 730 workplaces, 62 vehicles, eight public buildings and 120 homes. Yet within four days of this carnage, Hurriyet reported that the Turkish authorities were claiming that their criminal investigation into the explosions “was complete” – even though 10 of the victims had not been positively identified and 13 people were being held by Turkish police for questioning over the incident.
Poor Erdogan. Since his Justice and Development Party first assumed office in 2003, a leitmotif of his government’s foreign policy has been a vision of “neo-Ottomanism”. This was supposed to herald a strong Turkey across the Middle East to reclaim past glory and the regional influence of the once-mighty Ottoman Empire. It would seem that with his governing party’s vision of neo-Ottomanism, the Turkish prime minister was seduced by American-led plans for re-ordering the Middle East with regime change to fit Washington’s hegemonic interests, and with Ankara gaining a top place at the American geopolitical table.
It was no coincidence that one of Obama’s first foreign policy initiatives in 2009 was to nominate Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood-aligned government as its “interlocutor” in the Middle East.
Part of this grand strategic partnership between Washington and Ankara was evidently for Turkey to do the US bidding with regard to regime change in Syria and, by extension, to undermine Syria’s traditional allies, Iran, Russia and China.
The bitterly ironic upshot of this seduction is that not only is Erdogan’s Turkey in danger of damaging geopolitical relations with Iran and Russia over energy and other vital trade links, it now finds itself in an increasingly intractable conflict over Syria. That conflict is rebounding with incalculable human and economic costs.
And yet Turkey’s supposed American partner seems insouciant about letting Ankara slip further into that quagmire. No wonder Erdogan is suffering from that sinking feeling.