About twenty miles safely inside the border of Turkey with Syria stands one of the command posts of the Free Syrian Army. In reality they are simply a few elderly houses commandeered by the Turkish army and made available to fleeing Syrian soldiers. There are no Turkish soldiers in the area, but piles of supplies and equipment lay about. If asked, the Syrian fighters gathered there will swear it’s all materiel they brought with them when they crossed over. The Turkish markings on many of the boxes are ignored — and that’s just the way the Turkish liaison officers want it.
In brief this scene reflects Turkey’s problem in dealing with the bloody events occurring daily in neighboring Syria. Over thirty thousand refugees now fill camps along the Turkish side of the border. It is a difficult and expensive undertaking for Ankara to provide sanctuary for the civilian and military personnel who have fled from the deadly actions of Bashar al-Assad. Reluctantly the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accepted aid from its NATO partners. Turkey did not ask for the aid, and is attempting to ignore its arrival, but it’s undeniably useful.
The breakdown in the relationship between Ankara and Damascus carries a very personal disappointment. Prime Minister Erdogan and President Bashar al-Assad had evolved an excellent acquaintance. This had extended to valuable intelligence exchange projects that on the Turkish side provided useful information on the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) that has long maintained terrorist operations in southeast Turkey. The quelling of Kurdish dissidence has been one of the keys to the success of Erdogan and his political party, AKP.
Friends and enemies alike view Recep Tayyip Erdogan as seeking to evolve into a contemporary version of the late dynamic Turkish leader, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, who established the post-Ottoman Empire secular democracy of Turkey. Erdogan, however, wants a reinstitution of Islamic culture and, to some extent, principles. He has also stripped the military of its primacy and, most specifically, its guardianship of Turkey’s secular commitment. It has been said Erdogan seeks the mantle of Mustapha Kemal’s honorific, “Father of the Turks” (the meaning of Ataturk). At the same time Erdogan is perceived by many as working to undercut the latter’s dedication to the maintenance of a secular Turkish state in favor of creating a version of an Islamic republic.
Bashar al-Assad had become an important element in Erdogan’s ambition not only to empower Turkey itself with a return to Islamic values, but to move Turkey once more into the forefront of Middle Eastern regional affairs. The Shia-Sunni rivalry was put aside as Turkey’s role as a mediator in Iran’s nuclear future was introduced as a possible outgrowth of the Erdogan-Bashar al-Assad relationship. That now is also a victim of the Syrian civil war and the breakdown of the bridge between Damascus and Ankara.
Turkey is now the principal haven for all those fleeing Syria and it has been forced to accept its new role as the aid center for Syria’s refugees. This is not what Erdogan had in mind as he encouraged his aggressive foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to seek to sell the concept of Ankara as the “natural” intermediary in Middle Eastern matters. In fact Davutoglu has been quoted as saying that Turkey “has a unique understanding of the Middle East.” That “unique understanding” is now being put to the test as his ambitious prime minister is burdened by the expectations of his neighbors that Ankara will play a decisive and helpful role. These neighbors — each with their own interests — want their version of an even-handed cessation of the conflict.
To put it bluntly, Erdogan has succeeded in placing Turkey in a pivotal strategic position in the region, but unfortunately this “success” gains Turkey very little. It is generally agreed at this point that both Israel and Turkey would prefer to see a moderate Sunni government take over in Damascus. However, with the appearance already of strong elements of al Qaeda or al Qaeda-trained fighters among the anti-Assad Sunni population, the chance for any sort of moderate government is diminished. Iran is worried that it will lose its ally in Syria; Moscow is worried about its naval facility at Tartus; NATO is worried about the Eastern Mediterranean in general. And the Saudis are not sure they want Ankara becoming the regional arbiter.
So much for Erdogan’s ambition to exert Turkish influence in the Middle East. He has two more years to take the final steps in positioning himself as Turkey’s modern-day Ataturk. According to his own political party rules, he cannot succeed himself as prime minister. Unfortunately for Erdogan’s ambition, the presidency does not have adequate powers to influence and/or control government actions. He must somehow combine the two posts in order to exercise the state and government authority he appears to seek.
Erdogan’s domestic popularity has grown to the point where such a quasi coup d’état could occur if the currently sitting constitutional commission completes its work in his favor by its scheduled date of January 1, 2013. This timing might play into the politics of a Turkey influenced by the Syrian conflict, but the opposite could also be true. In years past, another prime minister could have turned to the military to assure the result he desired. That is just what Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sworn to change, and this is the dilemma he faces. It’s one thing to aspire to be an “Ataturk,” and another to be one.