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Political Analysis

How Assad Outfoxed Erdogan in the Battle of Wits for the Levant

Introduction

The Turkish President Recip Teyip Erdogan has been left reeling from the devastating electoral loss[1] of four of the biggest cities in the recent local elections. These losses have coincided with Turkey’s biggest concessions in the last few months; not just their U-turn on the ‘Assad must go policy’, but also conceding that they have reignited contact[2] with the Syrian Arab Republic. The Turkish Foreign Minister in December last year also admitted that the Turkish government would consider working with President Assad, should he win the next election democratically.[3] As the latest rounds of the Astana talks conclude, the Turkish position has moved considerably closer to that of Russia and Iran[4] – in other words, recognising President Assad as the legitimate ruler of Syria; and that Turkey plans to reach out to him sooner rather than later. The country has already begun low level intelligence contact with Damascus. It can be argued that President Assad has survived the American and Turkish-led assault against regime change, and is now in the driving seat in the battle between Ankara and Damascus. Furthermore, there is a direct link between Erdogan’s own electoral downward trajectory and the war in Syria. Before the war in Syria, Turkey was seen as the model for democratic reform for the Arab world – many Arab leaders, including Assad, admired Erdogan for his enlightened approach to market economics that transformed Turkey into a rising economy in the G20. Now more than half the Arab world has turned its back to Erdogan, for its perceived interference in domestic axairs in states like Syria, Egypt, GCC and Iraq. It was the Assad-Erdogan relationship, and the term of endearment ‘brother’ he oxered, that had opened Arab capitals to Ankara. Now, ironically, Turkey’s increasing involvement in Syria has turned into defeat in the polls as a direct result of refugees, economic downturn, and worsening of the Kurdish peace process.

Turkish Syrian Rivalry

As the UAE Foreign Minister Dr Abdullah Gargash stated a few months ago, Syria could not be left in the hands of the Turkish and Iranians; he was alluding to the mistake of kicking Syria out of the Arab League.[5] Since then the UAE have reopened their Embassy in Damascus along with Bahrain and called for a support to the Syrian government and worked towards an isolation of Turkey from Arab axairs. At the heart of the UAE call for support to Assad is an age old Arab Syrian-Turkish rivalry, which sparked the first Arab nationalist uprising in Damascus against the Ottomans in the nineteenth century. This soon turned into a land grab, when the newly independent Turkish Republic took lands that were historically always deemed Syrian and Arab in their nature rather than Turkish. This has been looked at in more depth by Sarah D Shields, in her book Fezzes in the River: Identity Politics and European Diplomacy in the Middle East on the Eve of World War II.[6] The argument over where Syria begins geographically dates back centuries, and certainly the end of the French Mandate and a broken promise by the French to hand over cities such as Adana, Antakya and Antep to the newly independent Syrian Arab State created deep scars for Arab nationalism. Syria would go on to be at loggerheads with Turkey for decades. The latest news of Armenian units joining the SDF forces[7] against Turkey is an echo of a 100 year old repeat of Turkey fighting for its traditional geography.

The current crisis has brought these rivalries out in the open again. Syria has managed to bring both the Turks and Kurds to its door by skilfully outplaying the two enemies, making itself indispensable to both. Syrian government forces claim they have entered Manbij, and the Kurdish group People’s Protection Units — fresh from a U.S. betrayal — are reaching out to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Americans and Turks are locked in a never-ending trust deficit over missiles, defence treaties, fighter jets and supporting divergent proxy groups. Soner Cagaptay, in his book The New Sultan[8], also discusses how Syria has stopped supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has led to greather stability between Ankara and the Kurds and contributed to the friendship between Assad and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As Erdogan has turned his back on Assad, the peace treaty that Syria helped with has also collapsed and Turkey once again has gone to war in the Syrian borderlands.

Assad prevails over Erdogan

Last month, President Trump announced he would move to list the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation;[9] in line with the Syrian and Egyptian view – both of whom support each other against President Erdogan’s policies in their respective countries, which they deem as interference. Similarly Iran and Russia have both forced Ankara to talk to Damascus and help re-stabilise its southern borders. As the Arab capitals have reached out to Damascus, it has further dented Turkey’s exorts at regime change.[10]The Muslim Brotherhood card, the Arab nationalism card and the much underestimated Orthodox Christian card have all played against Ankara’s Syria policy. Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon have all resumed trade ties with Syria, and President Assad is remerging as a regional player despite crippling losses during the war. In the battle of influence over the Levant, Damascus is back to its default position as the key balancer in a region which has seen much tumult over the last eight years since the Syrian war began. Erdogan’s own domestic opponents have questioned[11] his policies of interference in Syrian axairs, and the Turkish opposition has also questioned the need for the Turkish army to fight the Syrian opposition’s war. In other words, why should Syrian refugees roam freely in Turkey whilst Turkish troops die in Syria? Erdogan’s former Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, looks set to form his own party and former President Abdullah Gul has also questioned Turkish policies in Syria. Turmoil in Syria has brought troubles in Turkey, thereby leaving the Levant back in the Damascus sphere of influence.

[1] Isil Sariyuce and Jomana Karadsheh. Erdogan loses control of Turkish capital in local elections setback, CNN, 1st April 2019 – https://edition.cnn.com/2019/04/01/europe/turkey-local-elections-erdogan-intl/index.html

[2] Turkish president says Turkey keeping ‘low-level’ contact with Syria, Hurriyet Daily News, 4th February 2019 –
http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-president-says-turkey-keeping-low-level-contact-with-syria-141002

[3] Maher Chmaytelli. Turkey would consider working with Assad if he won a democratic Syrian election, Reuters, 16th December 2018 –
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-syria-assad-us/turkey-would-consider-working-with-assad-if-he-won-a-democratic-syrian-electionidUSKBN1OF0DP

[4] Hamidreza Azizi. Iran moves to facilitate Turkey-Syria understanding ahead of Astana summit, Al-Monitor, 18th April 2019 – https://www.almonitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/04/iran-syria-turkey-zarif-constitutional-committee-astana.html

[5] Naser Al Wasmi and Arthur MacMillan. Dr Anwar Gargash: solving the Qatar crisis must involve tackling the ‘trust deficit’, The National, 6th June 2018 – https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/dr-anwar-gargash-solving-the-qatar-crisis-must-involve-tackling-the-trust-deficit-1.737701

[6] Sarah D Shields. Fezzes in the River: Identity Politics and European Diplomacy in the Middle East on the Eve ,of World War II, Oxford University Press, 2011.

[7] Sirwan Kajjo. US-Backed Syrian Forces Form Armenian Unit, VOA, 27th April 2019 – https://www.voanews.com/a/us-backed-syrian-forces-formarmenian-unit/4894045.html

[8] Soner Cagaptay. The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey, I B Tauris, 2017.

[9] Siraj Wahab. Trump set to designate Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, Arab News, 30th April 2019 –http://www.arabnews.com/node/1490321/middle-east

[10] Semih Idiz. Assad’s reconciliation with Arab world could upend Turkey’s plans, Al Monitor, 18th January 2019 – https://www.almonitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/01/turkey-syria-reconciliation-arab-world-upend-ankara-plans.html

[11] Unemployment could have been prevented with money spent on Syrian refugees: CHP head, Hurriyet Daily News, 18th March 2019 – http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/unemployment-could-have-been-prevented-with-money-spent-on-syrian-refugees-chp-head-141995

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