October 19, 2015 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1194

Russian Intervention Shatters Turkey's Neo-Ottomanist Dreams For Syria

October 19, 2015 | By R. Krespin*
Syria, Turkey | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1194


Since the Arab Spring of 2011, Turkey's foreign policy has been focused on Syria and on the ousting of its 'Alawite President Bashar Assad, who Turkey hoped would be replaced by a like-minded Sunni ruler from the Muslim Brotherhood. During the 13 years of its rule, Turkey's government, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), steered the country away from its traditional alliance with the West and towards the Middle East and the Islamic world, claiming historic hegemony over, and responsibility for, the countries of the region - a role that Turkey sees as its Ottoman legacy. President (and former PM) Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Prime Minister [formerly FM] Ahmet Davutoglu designed a neo-Ottomanist, expansionist and foreign policy that involved grand aspirations to become the region's main superpower. They supported Islamist jihadist factions in many countries, incurring sharp criticism from the governments of Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq and especially Syria, where they played a major role in sparking and escalating the civil war. The AKP government allowed free passage to thousands of jihadi fighters into Syria, and provided material and logistic support to radical organizations that are fighting the Assad regime, including ISIS, Jabhat Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham -with the exception of the Kurdish forces, whom Turkey terms "terrorists" despite their important role in fighting ISIS.

After Turkey, a NATO ally, finally opened its strategically important Incirlik airbase for the use of coalition forces in July 2015, the U.S. and the West turned a blind eye to Turkey's aggression against the Kurds, and agreed to most of Turkey's demands,[1] including by supporting its program for training and equipping an opposition force in Syria to fight both ISIS and the Assad regime- a project that turned out to be a failure. When the U.S. and Europe rejected Turkey's initiative for a safe zone in Syria where Turkey would build cities to settle refugees, Turkey pressured them by allowing hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees from camps in Turkey to migrate to European countries, thus presenting Europe with a massive refugee problem. Russia's current involvement in Syria has definitely put an end to Turkey's safe-zone plans.

Turkey's opposition parties, as well as its independent media, have for years criticized Erdogan and Davutoglu's Syrian policies as "disastrous," yet the AKP government was confident that its plans for Syria would produce the outcome it desired. AKP leaders treated Syria as a domestic issue, and claimed that "not a bird could fly over that country without Turkey's approval."[2] In August 2012 Davutoglu predicted that Assad would fall within a few weeks,[3] and in September of that year Erdogan announced that "very soon, we [Turks]will meet and hug our [Sunni] brethren in liberated Damascus, say the Fatiha [prayer] at the tomb of Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyoubi and pray together in freedom at the Emevi mosque."[4]

Russia's recent military intervention in Syria along with Iran, aimed at propping up Assad's rule, as well as its airstrikes that target not only ISIS but also the so-called moderates supported by Turkey (which in reality are also Islamist terrorist groups), have transformed the face of the conflict. Russia's reassertion of its involvement in the Middle East, and its recent incursions into Turkish airspace, threaten to spark a Russia-NATO clash on the Turkey-Syria border. With its naval bases in Western Syria, Russia could interfere with Turkish and other vessels along the navigation routes in the eastern Mediterranean.  Turkey is certainly the most affected party in this new game, for its dreams regarding Syria, which never matched its actual abilities, are fast becoming a nightmare.

Reactions to the recent development in Syria, some oppositionist Turkish columnists criticized the AKP government for its foreign policies, which they characterize as sectarian, Islamist and based on neo-Ottoman fantasies. They also criticized the government for supporting radical Islamist organizations in Syria that have become a threat to the region and to Turkey's own security, and for manipulating the West into believing that there is a moderate opposition to the Syrian government, when in fact there is none.

Conversely, columnists in Islamist and pro-AKP papers slammed Russia's campaign in Syria and accused that it was part of a plan secretly concocted by Russia along with the U.S.

The following are excerpts from some of these articles.

Turkish Columnist: Russia's Intervention In Syria Has Thwarted The Turkish Government's Deluded Policies Regarding That Country; A Regime Change Is Needed In Turkey: A Transition To Democracy

Prominent Turkish columnist Kadri Gursel wrote on the liberal oppositionist news portal Diken:[5] "Russia's build-up of its military assets in Syria is aimed at protecting the Assad regime from Erdogan's regime and at preventing [Assad from being]toppled by various jihadist forces. With the power it has amassed, Russia can stop the advance of the jihadists supported by Ankara and oblige the coalition led by the U.S. to coordinate its moves against ISIS with Russia. Russia is becoming a source of concern for the U.S., but not too much concern.  After all, toppling Assad is not a priority for the U.S., and ISIS is a common enemy of both powers. Russian jets can only be a serious concern for the Erdogan-Davutoglu duo.  When Russian fighter planes fly near our border and bomb the jihadists, what will Ankara's reaction be, according to the rules of engagement [that were revised in 2012]? Will Turkish F-16s take off to pursue these planes, and if they do not leave the area, will they down the Russian planes like they have been doing to the Syrian planes and helicopters?  They will have to either engage the Russian planes in battle or else forget about their rules of engagement, which is the right thing to do. And if they [indeed] do this, Turkey's de facto areal support for the jihadists will finally stop, and then it will be difficult for Turkey to continue providing logistical support to the jihadists.

"Having imagination and living in an imaginary world two are different things. If Davutoglu had a shred of imagination, he would have foreseen the bitter consequences of the Syria policy that he and Erdogan have pursued all along. Their policy left Turkey with the biggest refugee crisis in its history, created the curse of ISIS that is plaguing the region and Turkey, and drew the U.S. into Turkey and the Russians into Syria. 

"Russia's air power in Syria also shatters the Erdogan-Davutoglu fantasy of a 'safe zone,' because [such as safe zone] would necessitate a 'no-fly zone', the enforcement of which would require willingness to fight the Russians. In any case, this zone is a fantasy of Erdogan's and Davutoglu's alone, which no Western ally or even Turkey's own institutions support.

"Instead of realizing [the nature of] his bankrupt and paralyzed policies, Davutoglu imprisons himself in his imaginary world, and continues talking at the U.N. about a safe zone between Jarablus and A'zaz, where Turkey means to build three new cities [for refugees] that will be defended by 'moderates' recruited from the Free Syria Army [FSA] and trained [by Turkey and the U.S]. This cannot be done with the FSA! Looking for 'moderates' among the urban myth known as the FSA is a fantasy! Davutoglu is dreaming about moderate ghosts.

"Such a problematic, incoherent and fixated leadership cannot extract Turkey from the Syrian disaster into which it has driven us. There is urgent need for a regime change in Turkey.  We must move quickly towards democracy."

Turkish Columnist: Turkey and Anti-ISIS Coalition Urged Russia To Fight ISIS, Not 'Syrian Opposition' - But The Only Opposition left In Syria Is The Jihadists And Middle-Eastern Taliban

Fehim Tastekin, a columnist for the liberal daily Radikal, has analyzed the situation in Syria in multiple articles.  Following the Turkish Foreign Ministry's release of a joint declaration by seven countries (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, U.S., France, Britain and Germany) on October 2, in which they called on Russia to cease its attacks on the "Syrian opposition" and focus on fighting ISIS, Tastekin wrote an article titled "Do Not Touch Al-Qaeda and Friends!"in which he wondered exactly who this "opposition" is.[6] He argued that Turkey and all other parties who had expressed surprise at Russia's attacks in the vicinity of Lattakia, Hama, Homs and Aleppo, and at its targeting of the FSA, should have realized from Russia's clear statements that it meant to fight not only ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra but all terrorist organizations, including those supported by the West and the Gulf. Tastekin wrote: "When the FSA is mentioned, Russia has a ready response: 'There is no FSA left. They have all joined ISIS and Al-Qaeda.'  Therefore the [anti-ISIS] coalition uses the term 'Syrian Opposition' instead. [But] who is this Syrian Opposition? Other than some small ineffective groups that still [operate] under the FSA umbrella, the real forces in the field are jihadi-Salafi groups such as Al-Nusra, Ahrar Al-Sham, The Islam Army and the Conquest Army.  What is the game plan of those [i.e. Turkey, the West and Gulf States] who are telling Russia to focus on ISIS? The only cards they have in their hands are Al-Qaeda and the new Middle Eastern Taliban, whose dangerous nature they try to minimize.  The area [in Western Syria] where Turkey is providing air security by means of its 'rules of engagement' is fast becoming Talibanized. This area, dominated by Al-Nusra and Ahrar [Al-Sham], is being flooded by Taliban-affiliated Uygur militants coming from Central Asia, as well as by Khazak, Uzbek, Tacik and Kirghiz fighters. 

"Since the coalition of the hopeless did not have at hand any trustworthy moderates, it tried to cast the jihadist Al-Nusra and Ahrar as moderate and make them acceptable to the international community.  Qatar pressured Al-Nusra to cut its ties with Al-Qaeda in return for more money and arms, and even banned its Al- Jazeera channel from describing Al-Nusra as linked to Al-Qaeda. Despite these marketing efforts, Al-Nusra keeps reiterating its allegiance to Ayman Al-Zawahiri.  Ahrar, being more pragmatic, agreed to declare that its aims are not 'global' jihad but are limited to Syria, thus making it easy for support to flow [to it] from Turkey and Qatar. While Al-Nusra attached itself to Al-Qaeda to avoid losing its militants to ISIS, Ahrar's veteran Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants became a magnet for Islamists who failed to join the other two organizations. As part of the plan to make Ahrar seem 'moderate,' Abu Yahya Al-Hamawi was brought into its leadership as a 'moderate Salafi'. Lebanon's Al-Safir daily wrote that Hamawi's appointment was an attempt to adapt to the changes taking place in Syria, and claimed that the new leader was affiliated with MIT [Turkey's National Intelligence Organization]. Ahrar's support of Turkey's plan to establish a safe zone also indicates that it acts in coordination with Ankara.  The region where Al-Nusra and Ahrar are dominant is precisely the area where Turkey wants [to establish] a safe zone.

"Clearly, some people fall for this Ahrar makeover, one of them being Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Damascus, who worked hard to form a Syrian opposition. Following the collapse of [the Turkish-American] 'train and equip' project, when moderate trainees fell prey to Al-Nusra, this retired diplomat told Obama to work with Ahrar, whose reputation was improving. But, while Ahrar is a rival of Al-Nusra, it is also Al-Nusra's closest ally. The two organizations [which are the major factions within the Conquest Army], complement one another. They both are allies of the Taliban. In short, the Islamists, which are [supposed to be] an antidote to ISIS, are increasingly becoming [affiliated with] Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  This Talibanization is happening near the Turkish border.

"Now Russia is bombing the Conquest Army in the area that Turkey [used to] protect with its 'rules of engagement'. Are these rules also applicable to the downing of Russian planes?  Where are [Erdogan's] angry rants starting with 'Hey, Putin!' [Erdogan is known for talking this way of Obama, the U.S. and Europe]?  Now he talks [to Putin] about his 'hurt feelings' and speaks in a restrained tone of voice. He is helpless, having lost all his options!"

Turkey Complains About Airspace Violations In Northern Syria, While Doing The Same Thing In Northern Iraq

In an October 8, 2015 article, Fehim Tastekin wrote:[7] "When the grand ambitions of a country [Turkey] exceed its ability, it ends up hitting brick walls in the international arena. [Erdogan and Davutoglu] who used to say arrogantly, 'No one should test Turkey's power', are now asking in bewilderment: 'What is Russia doing?'... After multiple incursions by Russia into Turkey's airspace,[the Turkish government] knocked on NATO's door, complaining: 'Russia is violating our airspace, it is playing a dangerous game.' You [Turkey] want to know what Russia is doing? It is not only violating your airspace, it is locking its plane radars and its ground-to-air missiles on you, monopolizing Syria's skies. In other words, it is establishing de facto the very 'no-fly zone' that you have been pressuring your allies to establish for the past four years.  The safe zone that you wanted [to establish] for the armed Islamist militants whom you equipped with thousands of truckloads of arms is now becoming [Russia's] safe zone, [where it means to]mop these groups up. While you hooked up with armed militants to fight a proxy war in a foreign country, Russia is operating legitimately under international law, with the permission of the Syrian government that is represented in the U.N.. The law is on Russia's side.

"As for the incursions into your airspace, and harassing your F-16s by locking radars on them, [I say]: Yes, it is violation of sovereignty. But when we mention this to our international friends, they all smile and say: 'Aren't you violating the airspace of Iraq every single day?'Don't even think of saying, 'We have solid justification [for this], we are fighting terrorism', because Russia is using the very same argument."

In the article Tastekin also warns about jihadists who have recently begun entering Turkey to escape the Russian attacks, and who pose a grave threat to Turkey's security. He also notes that China, the "awakening giant," is discreetly aiding Russia in its Syrian intervention.

Pro-AKP, Islamist Media Criticize Russia, U.S. For "Joint" Syria Policies

Pro-AKP media accused Russia of attacking Syrian opposition groups and Syrian civilians as part of a secret joint plan drawn up along with the meetings held during the U.N. General Assembly.

Signs read: "Murderous U.S.A, Russia - Get out of Syria!"; "Imperialist Russia"; "Putin Murderer" (Photos: Haksozhaber, October 3, 2015)

Ahmet Varol, a columnist for the pro-AKP daily Yeni Akit, wrote: "While U.S. President Obama said that a real solution in Syria required Assad to go, the Russian leader Putin claimed that there could be no solution without cooperating with Assad. While they were making a show of disagreeing, Russian planes were already in Syria, preparing to carry out their inhuman attacks with the purpose of saving Assad.

"Putin's decision to launch these attacks was not taken by Russia alone. Rather, it was taken following discussions and agreements reached with the U.S.  The leaders of the Eastern and Western wings of imperialism held a summit in New York during the U.N. Assembly.  As soon as the meeting took place, the Russian planes began their operations, showing the world clearly that any conflict between [Russia and the U.S.] was in fact for show and [in practice] there was an alliance between them."[8]


* R. Krespin is Director of MEMRI's Turkish Media Project.



[2] Cumhuriyet, June 13, 2014.

[3] Hurriyet, August 25, 2012.

[4] Hurriyet, September 5, 2012.

[5] Diken (Turkey), September 28, 2015; Kadri Gursel, who formerly wrote for Milliyet, was fired in July 2015 due to a tweet deemed insulting to President Erdogan.

[6] Radikal, October 3, 2015.

[7] Radikal, October 8, 2015.

[8] Yeni Akit, October 2, 2015.

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