An Impulsive Actor in the Middle East

By Bitte Hammargren - 28 June 2017
An Impulsive Actor in the Middle East

Bitte Hammargren examines the rise of Erdoğan and the prospects of Turkey overcoming his grip. This is a chapter from the e-book 'The Future of the Middle East' co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. Freely available chapters will be serialised here and collected into a final downloadable publication in the spring.

Turkey's role as a player in the Middle East has changed dramatically during the last years, as it has gone from being viewed as a role model to a problem maker in the region. This is intertwined with president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism.

Whereas Erdoğan follows a compass in domestic politics – always aiming at strengthening his power – his foreign policy is characterized by impulsiveness and lack of understanding of the MENA region. Many of today’s problems in Turkey – Erdoğan’s quest for a one-man rule, the corruption scandals, the civil war with the outlawed Kurdish guerilla PKK (Kurdistan’s Workers Party) and the Salafi jihadist terror that has hit the republic numerous times – can be traced back to the same roots: Ankara’s fatal miscalculations on Syria after the eruption of the Arab spring in 2011. Erdogan’s way of rallying behind Qatar in the summer of 2017 is another example of his impulsiveness.

But one red thread can be found in his Middle East policy: His attachment to the Muslim Brothers and its backers. Unlike many branches of the Muslim Brothers, however, he lacks a strategic thinking when he tries to navigate between reefs in the Arab world.

No longer a role model

Today’s Turkey is a traumatized country. The republic, which some years ago appeared like a vibrant example for citizens of the stagnant, authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, nowadays has lost its gloss and is heading towards the consolidation of a despotic rule.

Turkey is suffering from many wounds and a collective post-traumatic stress syndrome, which will take years to recover from. The failed coup in July 2016 and the referendum in April 2017, which will give president Erdoğan almost unlimited presidential powers, are only two explanations to this trauma.

There is another one: the disastrous geopolitical miscalculation in 2011 when the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government made an abrupt U-turn, away from its former foreign policy doctrine “zero problems with the neighbors”, and ended up having problems with an increasing number of neighbors. Syria became the most calamitous example, but not the only one.

Most people in Turkey admitted some years later that serious miscalculations were made in Syria. Even the deputy prime minister Numan Kurtulmuş admitted “big mistakes” and talked of the need of correction. But one man refuses to acknowledge that Turkey did anything wrong across its southern border: the almost omnipotent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

When peaceful demonstrators took to the streets in Syria in March 2011, Ankara was hoping that Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Damascus would crumble and give way to a government led, or at least shared, by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brothers, favored allies of the ruling AKP.

But Turkey’s government proved to have poor analysis on Syria, as well as on other Arab countries. Even though Turkey carries the legacy of the former Ottoman Empire, for centuries a colonial power in the Levant, today’s Turkey has few Arabic speaking diplomats, insiders lament. You can easily hear both Turkish analysts as well as Arab scholars and diplomats argue that Ankara’s outlook towards the Arab world is arrogant.

Hubris in Ankara

When the Syrian crisis erupted in March 2011 Ahmet Davutoğlu had been foreign minister for almost two years. When he was newly appointed, in May 2009, he launched his doctrine ‘zero problems with the neighbors’. He explained it to a group of visiting European journalists, of whom I happened to be one, during his first week as foreign minister. Davutoğlu claimed that this meant that Turkey was able to speak like the Europeans in Brussels and like the Arabs in Baghdad. But neither Davutoğlu nor Erdoğan, who was prime minister at that time, could grasp the situation in Iraq or Syria. The AKP government failed to understand that the spine of the Assad regime was its security branches with their long tentacles and utter savagery and that the Syrian regime was intent on survival at any cost.

Before the Syrian uprising president Erdoğan had fostered close relations with president Bashar al-Assad and tried to act as a mediator between Israel and Syria. In February 2010, when I interviewed Assad in Damascus, he talked at length about Turkey’s role as a mediator.

Erdoğan and his wife Emine had also spent holidays with Bashar al-Assad and his spouse Asma. Turkey’s strong man obviously thought he could maneuver the Syrian president. But he failed.

When civilians in Syrian cities took to the streets in the spring of 2011, Ankara first asked Assad to open the door for the Syrian Muslim Brothers, so that they could play an influential role in Damascus[a]. But the Muslim Brothers were anathema for Assad. After an Islamic uprising in Hama in 1982, the Syrian Muslim Brothers had been ruthlessly crushed by his father, Hafez al-Assad. Membership in the organization was punished by death, under the Syrian emergency law 49. Damascus lifted the emergency laws in April 2011, in a cosmetic move, but the merciless crackdown against the protesters and as well as the draconian punishment of the Muslim Brothers was unaffected.

Breaking relations with Damascus

When the schemes of Ankara did not work, Turkey in August 2011 took an impulsive step and broke its relations with Damascus. This proved to be a core mistake. Turkey acted without deeper analysis and contributed to what soon became a wildfire. With Pandora’s Box wide open, the Syrian crisis soon became a proxy war with many actors – from Iran to Saudi Arabia – who were all driven by their own agendas. Turkey committed itself to a regime change by military means in Syria, not listening to seasoned voices in Ankara who argued that this was not feasible. One well-placed Turkish source describes to me the disastrous policy mistakes:

“For a regime change policy to succeed by external military intervention (apart from the international law aspects of the issue), two conditions are required: Firstly, a strong opposition is needed which could take over when the ancient regime falls. If that condition is not met, even if the existing regime falls in some way, it is almost obvious that a new power struggle between various opposition groups, maybe an even more bloody one, would follow. A second condition for a regime change policy to succeed is, there should be a minimum amount of consensus among the relevant international powers. None of these two conditions were met in Syria. Please also note that Turkey had no previous experience of a regime change policy in other countries. So we can say, Ankara engaged itself for a policy it had no experience of, and that without making any proper analysis.

Deaf to criticism Ankara opened its southern borders for weapons and foreign fighters who were willing to join a militarized rebellion, supported by two Gulf rivals, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who both wanted to have the upper hand in Syria. Inside Syria, Turkey and Qatar by the time started to fund Ahrar al-Sham, one of the biggest armed groups in the north, while the Saudis funded the rebels of Jaish al-Islam, which has its stronghold in the countryside around Damascus (Eastern Ghouta).

Assad’s cynism

In the early summer of 2011 Damascus released hundreds of diehard Salafi jihadists from the Sayidnaya prison. The cynical plan of Assad was to make them become key actors in the killing fields. Assad and his security apparatus knew the Salafi jihadists in its own prisons well after the Iraq insurgency, when Syria for some years became a ‘rat line’ for jihadists who volunteered to fight the Americans. In early 2003, at the start of the US invasion in Iraq, Syria's top Sunni authority, the 92 year old Grand Mufti, Ahmad Kaftaro, encouraged suicide bombings in Iraq. ''I call on Muslims everywhere to use all means possible to thwart the aggression, including martyr operations against the belligerent American, British and Zionist invaders,'' he said in a statement, which by no means was prevented by the Syrian regime.

While reporting from Damascus in March 2003, I saw young Syrian Sunni men lining up in front of the Iraqi embassy, still controlled by Saddam Hussein. These young men came to join the fight against the US invaders in Iraq. As I and a photographer talked to some men from the queue, Syrian police officers in uniforms stood idly by. This traffic to help the insurgency in Iraq was at its height in 2005-2007. It did not, however, prevent the US from extraditing suspect Al Qaida members to the Syrian torture chambers. When Assad wanted to improve its relations with Washington in 2009, he hosted visitors like John Kerry, a senator at that time, and sent scores of jihadists to prison – only to release them when a civilian and peaceful protest broke out in Syria some years later.

In 2011 Assad wanted to create “the perfect enemy” inside Syria, fighters who would scare the West from intervening. He expected that it would not last long until the Salafi jihadists would take the lead in the opposition. Damascus got what it wanted – ironically with indirect help from Turkey and Sunni Gulf states who provided the fighters with weapons, money and a free passage into northern Syria. The jihadists in the Nusra Front and ISIS after some time got the upper hand in the rebellion, whereas moderate rebels in the Free Syrian Army were devoured by hardliners or targeted by the regime’s barrel bombs.

The result became a disaster for Syria – and to a lesser degree for Turkey which soon had three million Syrian refugees on its soil and no sight of a political solution in its neighboring country. Syria became a battle zone with many fronts and interests. A Turkish scholar, Hakan Güneş, has compared the situation with how Pakistan once enabled the Taliban to grow inside Afghanistan, only to discover that the Taliban soon became an internal problem for Pakistan. Robert Fisk came to a similar conclusion: Turkey has taken on Pakistan's role as an arms funnel and rest-and-recreation centre for Syria's mujahedin, asking if Turkey would soon become the Pakistan of the Middle East.

Turkish journalists in the opposition paper Cumhurieyt, who tried to uncover details about secrets arms transfers across the border, were soon targeted by the AKP regime, like the former editor-in-chief, Can Dündar. In June 2017 a member of parliament from the main opposition party CHP, Enis Bergeroğlu, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for espionage, i. e. for handing over a video film to Cumhuriyet which was said to show how Turkey’s intelligence agency was transporting weapons into Syria.

A Kurdish quest for autonomy

While this was taking place on Turkey’s southern border, another drama was unfolding in the Syrian north: A Kurdish quest for autonomy started to grow in places where the Assad regime had withdrawn its troops. Here again Assad was the shrewd, calculating player, while Turkey acted out of impulse.

By withdrawing the Syrian Army from northern Syria, Assad wanted to let the Syrian Kurds create problems for Turkey and possibly destabilize it. Ankara did not understand Assad’s tactics of using non-state militant actors for his own interest – although the Syrian regime had been an expert in this field for decades.

One Turkish foreign policy expert, who wishes to remain anonymous, comments dryly that Assad succeeded with his aims, both in the release of the jihadists and in the withdrawal of his army from Syria’s border to Turkey. The expert continues:

“Since AKP’s priority in Syria was the overthrow of the Assad regime, one would rationally expect that Ankara would act to preempt these tactics of Assad. However, the AKP did just the opposite! Assad succeeded in both these two critical tactics almost perfectly, I suppose, even beyond his own expectations, very much thanks to the policies implemented by the AKP. While Assad opened the doors of the prisons for jihadists, the AKP opened Turkey’s borders for them.”

Many Turkish foreign policy experts prefer not to be named, but their messages often point in the same direction: To protect Turkey’s interests, Ankara should have cooperated with the Kurds in Syria, not demonized them, they argue. “There were many ways to find a common ground with the Kurds in northern Syria”, one source who used to be close to power circles tells me. Nowadays the Syrian Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) is declared as a terrorist organization by the AKP, ”because it is a branch of PKK, which is true, therefore unfit for any contact and cooperation”, as one Turkish analyst puts it. However, not so long ago, AKP made several cooperation attempts with PYD. A well informed source says:

“The AKP government even flew PYD’s leader Salih Müslim by government jets to Ankara several times for negotiations. Ankara insisted very hard on Müslim that PYD should participate in the fight to take down the Assad regime. But the PYD did not agree. I don’t want to go into details of these negotiations. But just imagine if Salih Müslim had accepted Ankara’s proposals and joined the fight with other AKP supported groups to knock down the Assad regime, would PYD still be demonized by the AKP today?”

When the fighters of PYD’s military wing, YPG (People’s Protection Units), fought against ISIS in Kobane in 2014, Turkey’s army remained passive and did nothing to help the Kurds. This outraged not only Kurds in Syria, but also Kurds in Turkey, including Islamic conservatives who used to vote for the governing AKP.

In July 2015, after a parliamentary election that shocked president Erdoğan, the pro-Kurdish party HDP, People’s Democratic Party, managed to get even Turkish votes and reached well above the ten percent threshold to the parliament. After that it did not take long before Ankara broke the peace process with the PKK.

Erdoğan chose the war, instead of paving the way for peace with the Kurds. He felt a threat from the charismatic young HDP leader, the lawyer Selahattin Demirtaş, a Kurd whose message appealed to many Turks in 2015. Demirtaş wanted to be the leader of all peoples of Turkey and was not willing to give Erdoğan the presidential powers he was yearning for. Demirtaş also held a defiant tone against the PKK hardliners in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq:

We called on the PKK to stop fighting against Turkey. I repeat this call every day. The two sides should take their fingers off the trigger and the weapons should be silenced.”

But the leftist Kurdish guerilla jumped into the war in 2015, even though both sides knew after the devastating conflict in the 1990’s that this is not a war that can be won. I remember from travels in Turkey’s south east how both Kurdish civilians and mayors used to talk about the peace process as promising but hard to reach. And suddenly it was laid in ashes, by both Erdoğan and the PKK.

When jihadi terror attacks also struck vital interests in Turkey, Ankara started to rein in jihadists and tighten the republic’s approximately 900 km long border to Syria. But this was too little, too late. The genie was already out of the bottle. ISIS not only had declared its infamous Caliphate in north west Iraq and north east Syria, but had active cells in Turkey. When the offensive against ISIS intensified, the jihadists answered with new attacks on civilian targets in Turkey.

Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015 by the time led to another example of Erdoğan’s impulsiveness, as he made a shift on the ground inside Syria and started to patch up with the Russians, as was seen during the fall of Eastern Aleppo, and as Turkey became one of the key players in the talks in Astana. The Syrian opposition felt increasingly abandoned by Turkey

But the primary focus for Erdoğan now became to quash the Syrian Kurds of PYD/YPG. Turkey’s military intervention in Jarablus, as part of its Euphrates Shield Operation, resulted in a Turkish buffer zone that prevented the PYD from linking up two enclaves. Turkey's control of the buffer zone looks increasingly like an annexation project, a European observer notes. Electricity grids are joined to Turkey. Erdoğan also started to criticize the the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which had given Turkey its modern borders. Pro-government media followed in the footprints of the president and showed maps of a ‘greater Turkey’, Misak-i milli, from 1920, between the end of World War 1 and the Lausanne Treaty.

On the Syrian battlefield tensions have grown between Turkey and United States, two NATO allies who support different fighters. In Turkey the government’s frustration was mounting as the US chose to partner with the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF. Even though the group has some Arab elements within its ranks, its command lays under the YPG and the backbone of of the fighters are Kurds trained by the PKK. In the eyes of the AKP government this meant that their NATO ally was empowering terrorists. But for Washington, Turkey’s ‘Euphrates Shield’ was not a viable alternative in the offensive against Raqqa, the stronghold of ISIS. As a Swedish expert on Syria, Aron Lund, underlined, a flare-up of violence between Turkish and Kurdish forces in northern Syria in April 2017 threatened to delay the US led campaign on Raqqa. The sense from another European observer is that Turkey would increasingly want to see Damascus in charge of Raqqa, once liberated, rather than the PYD.

Aftermath of a failed coup

If you look into Turkey’s illness that followed after the disastrous Syrian mistake, the worst blow was the failed coup that started on a warm Friday evening in July 2016 and led to a death toll of more than 260 and the bombing of the Parliament. The putschists were amazingly amateurish and were suppressed after a night of fighting when thousands of civilians heeded the calls from the minarets and president Erdoğan’s message via a FaceTime talk with CNN Türk to protect the nation.

After that he not only hunted down suspects within the military. He also began widespread purges against civil servants and university teachers, who were likely  completely innocent from involvement in a plot to overthrow the government. Having a bank account in Bank Asya, previously owned by the Turkish-Islamic Gülenist movement, was in many cases the sole reason for losing a job. Bank Asya used to provide bank services following Turkish laws and regulations. The Bank’s inauguration ceremony was honored by AKP dignitaries, including Erdoğan himself and the former president Abdullah Gül – a sign of how strong the ties used to be between the AKP and the Gülen movement. But the leader of the movement, Fethullah Gülen, a preacher who has been exiled in Pennsylvania since 1999, is now designated as a terrorist leader by Ankara. Until the first cracks started to show in 2013, during the Gezi protest, Gülen’s schools, universities, business and media empire were allies to the AKP government. Today the Gülen movement is called FETÖ – an acronym for ‘Fethullah terrorist organization’, and blamed for being behind the attempted coup.

Since the failed coup more than 100 000 persons have lost their jobs and income, and scores of sacked civil servants and teachers have been blacklisted in an official gazette.  Few dare to hire the blacklisted. In Istanbul in the spring of 2017, I met university teachers who tried to collect money to help their unfortunate, destitute colleagues – but raising money for them could also be dangerous, so this has to be done in a cautious way.

Another feature of Yeni Türkiye, or the New Turkey, as Erdoğan labels the republic, is the silencing of media outlets and journalists who are not government loyalists. Turkey is said to be the country in the world where most journalists are held behind bars.

Some of those behind bars are foreign journalists, and others are high profile Turkish writers. In this witch hunt journalists can get apprehended for articles that were published perfectly legally some years ago, but that are now, on dubious grounds, called ‘terrorist propaganda’. One veteran journalist in Istanbul told me with sadness in his eyes that ‘democracy is dying in the dark’.

At the same time ministers or government officials in the highest echelons, who cooperated with Gülenist some years ago, can go on as usual. But the noose gets tightened against circles in the AKP who are acting against Erdoğan’s one man rule.

The Turkish strongman doesn’t want critics around. Turkish observers argue that president Erdoğan started to show signs of paranoia during the Gezi protests in 2013, when hundreds of thousands of protesters contested an urban development plan for the Taksim Gezi Park. But the protest, to which people from various political trends gathered, was more than that: It was also a rally against Erdoğan’s authoritarianism.

Many losers in Turkey

When you try to identify the losers in today’s Turkey, you find that president Erdoğan is one of them, even though he was the victor in the referendum on constitutional changes in April 2017. He will now formally have extensive powers – control of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government – that he already implemented in practice before the referendum. The entirety of the constitutional amendments will be implemented after the next presidential and parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for the same day in November 2019.

For the anti-Erdoğan camp there seems to be only one way to get back to a Turkish republic with checks and balances: if Erdoğan loses the next elections. The results of the 16 April 2017 referendum, where the Yes (Evet) campaign got only 51.4 percent, has given the anti-Erdoğanists some hope.

In order to defeat the incumbent president in 2019 the anti-Erdoğan camp needs a candidate who will not be labeled as a secular leftist, since that would lead to a predictable loss. Therefore someone from the old and internally divided Republican People’s Party, CHP, seems to be excluded. A candidate who could beat Erdoğan has to appeal to both conservative, Islamic AKP voters, who don’t like Erdoğan’s style, as well as to anti-Erdoğanists of different kinds: secularists, the old elite, Kurds, Alevites, some nationalists and some segments of the Islamic conservatives.

A person who is named too early is likely to be crushed by Erdoğan’s powerful apparatus long before the next elections. So before designating a challenger, the various oppositional forces need to build a broad-based platform. Turkey’s failed policy on Syria, plus the corruption scandals, are points for a common ground. But there is also huge divide between the Turkish nationalists of MHP and the pro-Kurdish voters of HDP as to how the policy mistakes in Syria should be assessed and corrected.

However, without a broad-based platform for the oppositional factions there seems to be no remedy in sight against a one-man rule in Ankara. Turkey’s role as an inspiration for democratic forces in the Arab world – and in the region at large, including Caucasia, Iran and Central Asia – therefore risks being an image from the past.

Support of the Muslim Brothers

Turkey, which used to have considerable business contracts in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, started to support the revolt in the north African jamahiriya in 2011 only after some hesitation. Just like in Syria, Ankara bet on a horse with connections to the Muslim Brothers (MB). This angered MB’s Sunni Arab opponents in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates even further.

In Palestinian politics Erdoğan has fostered relations with both Hamas, a Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brothers, in Gaza and President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. After Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s war with Hamas in the winter of 2008–2009, Turkey’s strongman sided with Hamas and the victims in Gaza. At World Economic Forum in Davos he neglected the diplomatic protocol and said, sitting on stage with Shimon Peres, that “when it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill” about Israel. He was well aware that he scored points at home by this outburst and by abruptly leaving Davos.

After Israeli commandos’ deadly assault in 2010 on Mavi Marmara, a convoy which was set to break Israel’s blockade on Hamas ruled Gaza, he lambasted Israeli politicians again – only to change his tone in 2016 when Turkey normalized its relations with Israel and relatives of the Turks who died in the attack could get compensation in a deal worth 20 million dollars.

Like Turkey, the current the Emir of Qatar, sheikh Tamim, and his predecessor and father, sheikh Hamad, have been staunch supporters of Hamas – Qatar even gave a safe haven to the former Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. As the crisis on Qatar unfolded in the early summer of 2017, president Erdoğan once again acted out of instinct – and rallied behind sheikh Tamim Al Thani, a supporter of the Muslim Brothers in the Arab world. Turkey promised to send troops to back up the Emir, to prevent a palace coup or an invasion by Qatar’s Big Brother, i.e. Saudi Arabia. This caused new frictions in the region. The governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia were frustrated to see Turkey, a NATO country, siding with Qatar in the Gulf, “while Iran is nodding in approval”, as one well placed source in Cairo commented to me. The source continued:

“Qatar will not easily surrender; they have money and they have Al Jazeera. Turkey and Iran, two of the most powerful non-Arab countries in the region, are on their side. If the US does not make a firm decision, why should Qatar change? But Qatar has to make some changes, otherwise they will be kicked out of GCC. And then they will discover that Turkey and Iran are even nastier to be dependent on than KSA.”

An impulsive gambler

Turkish observers followed the crisis from a different angle, seeing how Erdoğan once again acted as an impulsive gambler in his foreign policy. Turkey had already had a standoff with Egypt, a Sunni rival on the other side of the Mediterranean, since the coup against the former president Mohammed Mursi in 2013. But when Ankara sided with Qatar, it looked as if Turkey took the risk of losing Saudi Arabia, an investor in the Turkish economy, as well. Observers from Turkey concluded that their country quite likely would come out as one of the losers of the crisis. If the Saudi led blockade against Qatar would lead to a palace coup in Doha, Turkey would lose not only Saudi Arabia but also its friendship with Qatar. If, on the other hand, the blockade of Qatar, a conservative (Sunni) monarchy, would push the small emirate closer to the (Shiite) Islamic republic Iran, Turkey would find itself cornered again in the Arab world, like it was in when it lost its relations with Egypt after Erdoğan’s strong support for the ousted Mohammed Mursi and the Muslim Brothers.


[a]I have written about this in Swedish, in a book (anthology) to which there is now a hyperlink


Bitte Hammargren is the Programme Leader of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs

To read more from the forthcoming e-book, please see here.

Photo credit: Jorge Franganillo via / CC BY

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