Turkey’s President Erdogan is currently in the most complex position of any state leader involved in the Syrian conflict. By contrast, the position of all other players is far more straight forward. Syria wants the restoration of full government control over all parts of Syria, including the Zionist occupied Golan Heights. Russia wants a lasting peace that protects the institutions of Syria and indeed strengthens them for the future, without alienating any particular faction (if such a thing can be helped). Iran wants to safeguard its position as a steadfast ally of Syria and insofar as “Israel” probably isn’t willing to wage total war on both Syria and Iran, Tehran’s goal will likely be quietly accomplished. “Israel” for its part, knows it lost its own Syrian conflict and as such is making threats to anyone and everyone in the region, in true hysterical fashion.
The United States meanwhile wants to test the waters and see how long it can get away with occupying Syria in the hopes of meddling in and retarding the following:
–The Syria/Iraq alliance
–The Russia/Turkey partnership
–The wider Northern Bloc of the Middle East’s new pan-regional partnership
–Prevent rapprochement between Syria and Turkey
For Turkey though, the issue is far less clear cut. The rhetoric and more importantly the diplomatic and military actions that Turkey is taking regarding Syria, indicate that Ankara has tacitly acknowledged the futility of its earlier attempts to foment illegal regime change in Syria.
This has expressed itself in the following ways:
–Turkey’s formation of a meaningful economic and security partnership with Russia after being on the verge of war with Moscow
–Turkey’s simultaneously intensified positive relations with both Iran and Iraq
–Turkey’s pivot from an anti-Syrian Arab Army operation to an anti-Kurdish YPG/PYD/PKK operation
–Turkey openly stating that in the form for the YPG/PYD/PKK, Damascus and Ankara face a common threat
–Turkey destroying any chance of a united NATO position on Syria due to its open rift with the United States
–President Erdogan saying “no doors are shut” in respect of dialogue with the Syrian government
–Erdogan not slamming the opposition for its renewed calls for contact with Damascus
While Turkey can and should be commended for adopting the closest thing to a “win-win” position that it could, given domestic constraints, Turkey has a problem that is largely of its own making, but nevertheless it is an unenviable position and one that is not as clear cut as it may seem.
After years of funding, arming and training Muslim Brotherhood style terrorists/mercenaries, giving them the title FSA and sending them to Syria to raise hell, these men are now being effectively conscripted into Turkey’s justified security operation against the YPG.
I’ve previously proposed a solution for what to do with these so-called FSA fighters once the conflict in Syria inevitably draws down, thus turning otherwise young, angry and “unemployed” men from a loyalty to an asset. The solution requires Turkey to imaginatively integrate them into a would be “Turkish Foreign Legion” that will protect Turkish material and strategic assets outside of Turkey’s borders.
While this solution would certainly suit some of the so-called FSA fighters, others might want more. One needs to remember that Turkey foolishly promised the so-called FSA that in return for their loyalty to Turkey, their reward would be ruling Syria. This clearly is not going to happen now.
The danger therefore is that such men might extract vengeance upon the Turkish state and Turkish civilians as a result. But far from the much overused narrative that Turkey created a Frankenstein monster that it could not control, the reality is actually more frightening.
Prior to the Syrian conflict and during its initial stages when Turkish involvement was comparatively limited, Turkey was in the midst of a crisis between the ruling AK Party of the then Prime Minister Erdogan and loyalists to Fethullah Gulen. While Gulen and Erdogan were once allied in their struggle to purge Kemalists elements from the Turkish elite and civil service, they became enemies after a joint conspiracy to “unmask” would-be Kemalist insurgents turned out to be just as false as the Russiagate scandal in the United States.
As I previously wrote,
“For the first decade of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s career as Turkish Prime Minister, Fethullah Gulen and his so-called Gulen Movement, were key allies of Erdogan’s centre-right/populist/neo-Islamist AK Party.
Gulen’s powerful network of neo-Islamist supporters played an implicit (however, contemporarily ignored and denied) role in helping Erdogan and his AK Party surge to power in 2003, which in turn led to a period of unbroken AK Party rule which continues to this day under Erdogan’s powerful Presidential position.
Gulen’s association with Erdogan and the AK Party continued through a period dominated by the Ergenekon investigation. Ergenekon was allegedly a group of ultra-secular conspirators within the Turkish deep state and army—both of which are home to historically hard-line Kemalists. The Gulen movement was deeply involved in circulation the rumours that members of Turkey’s judicial system, intellectual elite, civil service and Army were plotting to topple the AK government led by Erdogan.
In the end, most of the individuals investigated as part of Ergenekon turned out be innocent of all charges and furthermore, the “evidence” against them turned out to be largely forged—many say by Gulenists who wanted to fan the flames of an anti-Islamist conspiracy.
The failure of Ergenekon to produce anything tangible, subsequently led to the Gulen Movement joining with opposition parties (notably the secular CHP) in alleging that high levels of corruption were rampant in the AK Party”.
Since then, Gulen’s organisation has started to pose a very real threat to the Turkish state. While many in so-called “alt-media” as well is western mainstream media mock Erdogan’s claims of the dangers inherent in the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO), these dangers are in fact real. In politics, one’s greatest enemy is not a staunch opponent who can be easily exposed, derided or even eliminated, but it is someone with similar ideas, competing for a similar theoretically popular base.
Gulen and Erdogan both command ferocious loyalty from their followers and both have many admirers far outside the pan-Turkic world. While Erdogan never needed to recruit armed loyalists from overseas by virtue of the fact that he commands the second largest army in NATO, Gulen does need armed followers whether traitors inside the Turkish army or foreign fighters.
When Erdogan sensed that the conflict in Syria would be won by Takfiri factions, he took the calculated gamble that if he embarked on a Takfiri jihad/crusade against secular Syria, he may well have made himself a “bigger man” in the eyes of Turkophile Sunni extremists vis-a-vis Gulen and thus taken the wind out of Gulen’s sails. At the same time, Erdogan would have mobilised many potential followers of the FETO from outside of Turkey and kept them away by “giving” them Syria as their prize while simultaneously commanding their loyalty due to the fact that it would have been Turkish support which “gave them” this prize.
This plan has backfired but only half way. Turkey needs to keep a conflict of one form or another going in northern Syria for as long as possible, so as to thin the ranks of his own foreign loyalists as much as possible, so that he can eventually turn to what is left of them and proverbially say, ‘I tried my best and I hated Assad right to the end’. This is yet another reasons why those in the pro-Syrian community should not get overly exorcised when Turkish officials still utter an occasionally absurd and offensive statement about the Syrian President. Such statements are designed for consumption among the FSA, Erdogan’s ideological base whom he must keep happy and little beyond.
In this sense, when Erdogan first armed the FSA, he was acting from a position of weakness. Because he needed to “export and outsource” local tensions, he went on a foreign adventure he was ill prepared to actually see through. It did however, buy Erdogan time. If the men currently in the FSA could have been otherwise persuaded to join a fully-fledged FETO coup against Erdogan, things in Turkey might look very different today. For Syria, the difference may not have mattered much as Gulen’s close links with the United States could have resulted in the perfect storm of an unbreakable anti-Assad US/Turkey alliance, as opposed to the current state of affairs wherein Turkey has become far closer to Russia than its old NATO partner.
Erdogan is now dependent on the good will of Russia and Iran and even that of the Syrian Arab Republic to make sure that Turkish proxies fight the YPG, other US proxies, what’s left of rival Takfiri groups like al-Qaeda and possibly each other. Once this happens, the problem created by Erdogan’s weakness in 2011/2012 will have been partly solved, leaving him to take what is left of his proxy force to do something else, somewhere else. At such a point, Turkey will have had enough time to seal the borders with Syria whose porousness Erdogan once exploited himself. By then, it may even have been possible for Russia to secure a formal rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara, thus insuring that the borders will be protected from both sides. Turkey already has been working on just this issue with Iran and Iraq.
Erdogan is not the morally courageous leader that President Bashar al-Assad or Kim Jong-un is. The latter are genuine heroes of their people. Erdogan is however, the world’s most masterful politician. His art is the art of survival and growing stronger from potentially devastating situations. I have no doubt that the problem of how to exculpate himself from the mess that is the FSA will be solved. He has not failed to survive in previously perilous situations.
In the attempted coup against Erdogan in 2016, it was a tip-off from Russian intelligence that allowed him to run to safety, thus saving his life and his rule. This time, he will largely have to save his own life, but Russia, Iran and in a roundabout way, even Syria are there to help. Some leaders can and should be taken at face value. Such men are usually the best of leaders like Chinese President Xi Jinping who wears his intellect and forthrightness on his sleeve, or the worst leaders like Nicholas Sarkozy who wear their greed on their sleeves for the world to see. Erdogan is neither–Erdogan is never one to be taken at face value. Making such simplistic assumptions about Erdogan is best saved for those whose own career lifespan will be much shorter than that of the Turkish President. Lastly, Erdogan is anything but insane. Part of Erdogan’s political genius is making people believe he is insane and thus driving them to fits of their own madness. Erdogan is in fact all too sane, all too political, all too shrewd. He is human…all too human.