Turkey’s Perilous Crossroad

Turkey is at a dangerous crossroad, having plunged down the bloody route of “regime change” in Syria and getting drawn deeper into conflicts with Kurds, Iran and Russia. Can President Erdogan return to the more peaceful path he once followed, asks ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller.

By Graham E. Fuller

What does Turkey need to do to overcome its present foreign policy fiasco, one of the worst in modern Turkish history? The irony of all this is that those directly responsible for this mess, the team of Recep Tayyip Erdogan (now president) and Ahmet Davutoglu, (former foreign minister and now prime minister), is exactly the team that one decade ago had made extraordinary steps in creating a new, creative and successful foreign policy.

What went wrong? And how can Ankara now climb back out of the deep hole that it has dug for itself? The answer is simple: Erdogan and Davutoglu  should return to their original successful principles of a decade ago, now recklessly abandoned. The overwhelmingly most urgent task is for Ankara to get out of Syria.

Today’s Turkey blends the ancient with the modern.

Today’s Turkey blends the ancient with the modern.

Turkey’s Syrian policy has done more to destroy Turkey’s international position than any other single factor. But let’s be clear: Ankara is not primarily responsible for the present disaster in Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is. But Erdogan has hugely exacerbated the problem, encouraged radical jihadist elements fighting in Syria, helped stir up sectarian passions, and mishandled the Syrian Kurds.

All these policies have damaged relations with countries that really matter for Turkey: Iran, Iraq, Russia, China, the U.S., the European Union, Kurdish communities, and of course relations with Syria itself. Instead Ankara has opened a dubious, dangerous and futureless coalition with Saudi Arabia. And it has created a damaging confrontation with Russia in which Turkey is already the loser.

What should Ankara now do?

  1. Acknowledge the reality that Assad is not going to fall anytime soon, even though that was a reasonable assumption after the outbreak of an uprising against him in 2011. Turkey must abandon the obsessive effort to overthrow him. Russia, the U.S., the E.U., China, Egypt and even large numbers of Syrians now correctly believe that what might come after Assad is likely to be far worse than Assad. Turkey has little to gain and much to lose in continuing this fruitless struggle.
  2. Work with the major powers to bring about a peaceful solution in Syria: working with the U.S., Russia and the E.U., and rejecting Saudi Arabia’s absurd vision of a massive international Sunni army seizing control of Damascus.
  3. Return to Ankara’s earlier policy of standing above sectarian struggle in the region. Turkey is predominantly Sunni, but it has large Shiite and Alevi (quasi-Shiite) populations. Turkey has not really sought to be the champion of Sunni Islam for several hundred years. Indeed, Turkey gained respect and clout when it sought to act impartially between Sunni and Shia groups a decade ago. It should play no favorites in that capacity now.
  4. Work to improve its relations with Iran. Iran’s role in the region is growing steadily. It is vital to Turkey strategically and economically. It is a democracy in the making. Relations were seriously damaged when Turkey went all out to overthrow Assad, an ally of Tehran.
  5. Work closely with Iraq to help overcome sectarian problems, not simply as a supporter of Sunnis in Iraq. Turkey does not benefit from a divided Iraq. Nor does Iran, which would prefer to exert its influence in a united and stable Iraq. Turkey is well equipped to help bring sectarian reconciliation about in Iraq, with its excellent economic relations with Baghdad and shared interests in the wellbeing of Iraqi Kurdistan.
  6. Back away from strategic ties with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia rejects everything that Turkey claims to value: moderate Islam, religious and ethnic tolerance, non-sectarianism, non-intervention, democracy, globalizing markets, cultural attractiveness and soft power. Saudi Arabia, however, seeks only to draw Ankara in to be a Sunni champion and ally against Assad, against Iran, against the Iraqi Shiites and the Zaydi Shiites in Yemen.
  7. Cooperate with the other Gulf States, as long as it is on a non-sectarian basis. Ties with Qatar, in particular, could be productive.
  8. Place priority on restoring Turkish relations with Russia. Stop trying to drag NATO into unwise confrontations with Russia. The reality is that Moscow’s entry into the Syrian equation has all but eliminated Ankara’s options and freedom of action there. And Ankara cannot defeat Russia diplomatically. Furthermore, like it or not, Moscow is in fact well-positioned to forge a political settlement in Syria.

If Turkey undertakes the policy shifts outlined above, its relations with Moscow will automatically improve.

  1. Devote priority to close relations with all Kurdish elements in the region. Turkey, through the wisdom of its earlier policies, had won over the Iraqi Kurds as a close ally. But Erdogan has allowed his earlier path-breaking rapprochement with the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey, the PKK, to collapse. Ankara has refused to deal with the Syrian Kurdish movement, one of the few effective fighting groups against ISIS in Syria. It may be sliding into a general war against the Kurds which it might be able win on the battlefield but will assuredly lose politically.

Growing Kurdish power in the entire region is a reality, it has been on an upward curve for the last 25 years, invariably benefiting from each regional conflict to achieve greater de facto autonomy and world awareness. If Ankara is determined to stop Kurdish progress towards greater autonomy, anywhere in the region, it will only alienate the Kurds; above all such a posture will only hasten the emergence of greater Kurdish political, economic and cultural demands. Efforts to block this process of Kurdish emergence will not only fail, but will guarantee an uglier and more dangerous relationship for Turkey and the entire regional Kurdish reality long into the future.

Ironically, handled right and granted broader autonomy, most Kurds will inevitably look to Turkey as a regional protector, economic entrepôt and cultural magnet, as long as  Ankara does not alienate them. Where else could the Kurds look for valuable geopolitical ties in the region?

Ankara deserves great credit for having moved generously and humanely to accommodate more than 2½ million Syrian refugees inside Turkey. When Syrian domestic violence finally begins to end, many Syrians will go back home, but not all. This could be a problem for Turkey, but also a benefit.

The Ottoman tradition included an important role for Arabs within imperial rule. Today Turkey can only be enriched and strengthened through the acquisition of new Turkish Syrian citizens who can facilitate Turkish entree into the Arab world. Turkey is, after all, multinational already with huge numbers of other ethnic groups, from the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Balkans. A stronger Arab voice and expertise will only add to Turkey’s regional clout, economic access, and skills.

Finally Turkey should cooperate with Washington where it can, but only to the extent that Washington’s own policies in the region are wise and productive. Since 9/11 (and arguably even much before) U.S. policies in the Middle East have been disastrously bad, failing and destructive. Ankara would not cooperate.

President Obama in recent times, however, has dialed back the level of U.S. intervention and aggressiveness, especially now in Syria. If Ankara can undertake all these policy shifts its relations with Washington will much improve. That is assuming the next American president approaches the Middle East with wisdom, for which there is little guarantee.

All this also assumes that Erdogan will act wisely and not sacrifice Turkey’s foreign policy interests to his own reckless and divisive drive for greater personal power. Erdogan’s personal interests are not synonymous with the Turkish national interest.

Erdogan had once embraced and implemented Ataturk’s wise adage: Peace at home and peace abroad. Now he has abandoned those principles and is left with neither.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com

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17 comments for “Turkey’s Perilous Crossroad

  1. cheikh
    February 24, 2016 at 06:43

    for the Us, France and Uk, assad is the problem in syria because he is a dictator ! is saudi arabia a democraty ? for the time being, assad is the only one who fights IS and other extremists that are a deadly menace for wordl peace !

  2. AtaBrit
    February 24, 2016 at 01:41

    This is just so much apologistic rubbish.
    Turkey is the problem. end of.

  3. Idkak
    February 23, 2016 at 03:51

    Turkey should actually do the exact opposite written in this article, from kicking out US military from its bases and the region, to declaring war on Syria and Iraq with the risk of being obliterated itself because this is where its all heading to… Too many Turkish red lines have been crossed since the 90’s and quite frankly being an ‘ally’ to the real enemy who at every step of the way supported terrorists, armed them and made a mockery out Turkey via propaganda campaigns to mock it and smear it with mud of accusations, lies, claims and what not.. when it didn’t get what it needed from Turkey, i.e. when Turkey didn’t play ball…

  4. Åžahin
    February 23, 2016 at 03:28

    CumhurbaÅŸkanımız Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan’ın bu konuda sonuna kadar arkasındayız.Türkiye kendi geleceÄŸini koruma altına almak zorundadır. Bu coÄŸrafyada USA (Amerika birleÅŸik devletleri’nin) Orta DoÄŸu Politikası durumu bu hale getirdi. Türkiye müdahil olmadan, sınır komÅŸusu olan ülkeleri bu hale getiren USA ve Rusya, ÅŸu anda Türkiye’nin Suriye’ye karışmasını istemiyor. Türkiye bu duruma müdahale etmez ise, özellikle USA ve Avrupa birliÄŸi ülkeleri, Türkiye’yide aynı duruma düşürecektir.

    (alıntı yazıdır)

  5. February 23, 2016 at 02:32

    Graham Fuller: Explain your connection to the “Congress of Chechen International Organizations.”

    http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2013/05/03/uncle-ruslan-tsarnis-organization-may-have-funded-terrorists/

    Explain how a terrorist front was registered using your home address.

  6. Koray
    February 23, 2016 at 02:08

    Dünya haritasına bir bakın. (Look at world map). Suriye ile sınırı olan ülke hangisi? Fransa? Ä°ngiltere? Amerika BirleÅŸik Devletleri? Rusya? Türkiye’siz bir çözüm olamaz.
    Saddam Hüseyin döneminde, Türkiye’nin, Irak Suriye ve Ä°ran ile muhteÅŸem ticareti vardı. Åžimdi? Irak’ı Türkiye mahvetmedi. Suriye’yi Türkiye mahvetmedi. Tamamen USA (Amerika birleÅŸik devletleri’nin) Orta DoÄŸu Politikası durumu bu hale getirdi. Türkiye müdahil olmadan, sınır komÅŸusu olan ülkeleri bu hale getiren USA ve Rusya, ÅŸu anda Türkiye’nin Suriye’ye karışmasını istemiyor. Türkiye bu duruma müdahale etmez ise, özellikle USA ve Avrupa birliÄŸi ülkeleri, Türkiye’yide aynı duruma düşürecektir. Türkiye kendi geleceÄŸini koruma altına almak zorundadır. CumhurbaÅŸkanımız Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸa’nı yurt içinde desteklememiÅŸ olsak da, bu konuda sonuna kadar arkasındayız. Bu konuda, ÅŸu inancımı da dile getirmek isterim. Rusya elbetteki kendi çıkarlarını korumaya çalışacaktır. USA ‘nın kaypak politikaları olmasa eminim ki Rusya ve Türkiye’nin çıkarlarıda örtüşecektir.

  7. Serg Derbst
    February 22, 2016 at 11:16

    “Ankara is not primarily responsible for the present disaster in Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is.”

    Errr, excuse me, and with all due respect: That’s bullshit!

    The power primarily responsible for the Syrian war is the US, together with the usual suspects of its lackeys: UK, Saudi Barbaria, Israel (in the beginning at least), and – yes – Turkey. The latter was rather unusual, but Turkey has been the prime supporter of the cutting-head jihadis by buying their stolen oil and by keeping its borders wide open for fresh supplies etc.

    Assad didn’t start this. It was reported already in 2009 that CIA and MI-6 were working on building up an “opposition” in Syria. The first protests were quickly hijacked by foreign jihadis brought into the country by USA and UK over Turkey.

    Sorry, but I thought this was crystal clear by now.

  8. S. Keeling
    February 21, 2016 at 20:04

    “But let’s be clear: Ankara is not primarily responsible for the present disaster in Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is. But Erdogan has [hugely] exacerbated the problem, encouraged radical jihadist elements fighting in Syria, helped stir up sectarian passions, and mishandled the Syrian Kurds.”

    Bashar al-Assad’s Syria was sold to us in the west during the Cold War as a Soviet proxy/puppet state exercising an iron rule over its population.

    The word “oversold” comes to mind.

    Since then, we’ve learned of this Sunni Wahabbist (al-Saud family in Saudi Arabia’s) Jihadist war upon its Shia brother Muslims. Syria being predominantly Shia Moslems, along with Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, among others.

    Oh yeah, ISI[LS] is backed by the Saudis attempting to overthrow Assad, the US created ISI[LS] to topple Assad, Assad’s Syria is an ally of Russia, and Turkey’s Erdogan is paranoid about cleansing the planet of Kurds and wants to help Sunni Saudis if that’ll accomplish that. Note, Israel is allied with the Saudis supporting ISI[LS] against Shia Syria. Hezbollah is in there somewhere also. Meanwhile, everyone else thinks we’re all waging war against ISI[LS]. Hah.

    It should be obvious from that which side to be on. I joke.

  9. Abe
    February 21, 2016 at 00:20

    Where are we now?

    While the US has backed itself into a corner, Russia’s strategy has remained consistent and borne fruit. It is Moscow’s intervention that has been decisive and “irreversibly changed” the military dynamic, causing both ISIS and other jihadist groups to lose ground. With Russia’s aid, the Syrian Arab Army has proved itself to be the only fighting force on the ground or otherwise that can defeat ISIS. The problem is, that if the US was ever serious about defeating ISIS, it must now be realizing that it partnered with players who were less concerned by head-chopping terrorists and more concerned with own their regional interests — some of which just so happen to coincide with ISIS interests. Turkey’s latest gamble — firing across its border at the Syrian Kurdish YPG — has exposed the true absurdity of Washington’s actions in Syria. Here we have the American-backed Kurds fighting American-backed jihadists all the while being shelled by American-backed NATO member, Turkey. You could not make it up if you tried. This is an almost incomprehensible state of affairs — and incredibly dangerous. If Turkey, emboldened further by Washington’s tacit or explicit approval, steps up its campaign against the Kurds in Syria, potentially even going so far as a ground invasion with Saudi Arabia — there is no telling where this conflict will end. Such an action would lead NATO state Turkey into direct military confrontation with Russia inside Syria. Then, all bets are off.

    Malevolence or incompetence?

    There are generally two competing opinions among the harsher critics of US foreign policy. The first, is that Washington has knowingly and deliberately tried to destabilize the Middle East over the course of decades, that its motives are almost entirely malevolent. The second, argues that the various crises in which the US finds itself entangled are the result of foreign policy and diplomatic incompetence — a “loss of strategic direction,” as Sergei Karaganov, former foreign policy advisor to Putin has politely put it. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to decipher which side is right and which is wrong — in reality, it’s probably a bit of both, depending on which administration you are dealing with — but watching Obama’s White House as it tries to haplessly scramble to maintain some semblance of control over the Syria crisis, it would be hard to believe that the world has been dragged to this dangerous precipice by some cunning Machiavellian strategist.

    US Refusal to Cooperate with Russia Prolonged Syrian Suffering
    By Danielle Ryan
    http://journal-neo.org/2016/02/20/us-refusal-to-cooperate-with-russia-prolonged-syrian-suffering-2/

  10. Abe
    February 20, 2016 at 22:29

    Western media admits ISIS is supplied through Turkey, but cannot explain why neither Turkey nor the US forces based in Turkey have done anything to target these Turkish-based logistical operations.

    The US’ operations in Syria aimed at ISIS are done in the sound knowledge that no matter how much “damage” they appear to do, it remains essentially superficial as anything lost can easily be replaced via supply lines from Turkey – including replacing fighters, weapons, and of course, revenue.

    Despite the unified weepy narratives being once again carefully crafted by the practiced liars across the Western media, in an attempt to sell intervention in Syria, the glaring reality is that both the problem and the solution involves intervention in Turkey, and beyond that, the despotic regimes of the Persian Gulf who have openly underwritten for decades and served as the ideological source code for the most obscene extremism to take root in human history.

    To claim that Syria needs to be occupied and “saved” by the very regimes that have intentionally created and perpetuated the bloodshed not only in Syria, but elsewhere including Iraq and even as far as Libya, is in itself as much a crime against humanity in reality as the Western media claims Syrian and Russian efforts to end this affront to humanity is in fiction.

    For the West, perhaps the only way to treat the mortal, self-inflicted wound to its credibility and stance upon the global stage, is to withdraw from the Syrian conflict and secure the Turkish border from within Turkish territory.

    Turkey is the Source, Not Solution to ISIS and the Syrian Crisis
    By Tony Cartalucci
    http://landdestroyer.blogspot.com/2016/02/turkey-is-source-not-solution-to-isis.html

  11. February 20, 2016 at 22:23

    Yeah Assad is the problem not the Wolfowitz doctrine of USA Hegemony. Please Lokk at the world since the fall of the USSR. The Balkanisation of Yugoslavia the Serbs being bombed back to the stone age, Iraq being balkanised as we speak, Libya a failed state when prior to the no fly zone incident of 2011 they had the best standard of living in all of Africa, the destabilisation of Egypt and dolcis in fundum last but not least the balkanisation of Syria, and need i not forget the destruction of the Palestinian people and the destruction of Yemen and the cruel sanctions against Iran. Yeah its al Assads fault. Yesterdays news gets wrapped in todays fish P.S I forgot to mention what they did to Afghanistan since 1988. Yesterdays news gets wrapped in todays fish.

  12. Zachary Smith
    February 20, 2016 at 14:30

    But let’s be clear: Ankara is not primarily responsible for the present disaster in Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is.

    It’s so very obvious that a single declaratory statement settles the issue? I don’t think so.

    Ankara deserves great credit for having moved generously and humanely to accommodate more than 2½ million Syrian refugees inside Turkey

    Maybe, maybe not. I’ve read that Erdogan planned to send the refugees back to Syria into areas where they would displace the Syrian Kurds. And he surely found the refugees useful in manipulating Europe. One wonders if a few thousand of his pet terrorists weren’t included in the refugee surge for future mischief.

    • Abe
      February 20, 2016 at 22:36

      Graham E. Fuller’s “analysis” gets more delusional with each and every article he “contributes” to Consortium News.

      From “let’s be clear: Ankara is not primarily responsible” to “Ankara deserves great credit for having moved generously and humanely”

      There would not be 2½ million Syrian refugees inside Turkey were it not for Erdogan “generously” (which is to say, profitably) playing host to ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

    • voxpax
      February 21, 2016 at 06:29

      It seems out of the 2.5 Mil. refugees, only 250’000 are living in camps, the others are living in the streets of the big cities and are working below minimum wage, in some way the create value all ready.

  13. Erik
    February 20, 2016 at 09:10

    There is much truth here. Turkey probably sees its future in NATO as a proxy of the US right wing; much of NATO is doing the same without ground forces. Those “relief” vessels sent to the E Med ostensibly for refugees are probably intended to threaten Russia and support aggression by Turkey. The US has not even taken in the 10K refugees it promised months ago.

    Turkey may be waiting out the US primaries to decide whether it has a Clinton war, or whether Sanders dares to signal the same policy before the election. Either way it is controlled by Israeli and/or Saudi money in the US election campaign.

    An unknown is where the Al Qaeda/Nusra and ISIS elements would reappear if left hanging in Syria. When the US backed out on these Reagan “freedom fighters” in AfPak they attacked NYC on 9/11. Ankara and Riyadh are more readily accessible.

    • anna
      February 20, 2016 at 12:02

      This rational plan for Turkey couldn’t be accepted due to ziocons’ pressure. A peace between Turkey, Syria, and Russia would mean a disaster for the Yinon Plan fanatics. The ziocons need a continuation of the slaughter in the Middle East.

    • Herman
      February 21, 2016 at 08:55

      “Turkey’s Syrian policy has done more to destroy Turkey’s international position than any other single factor. But let’s be clear: Ankara is not primarily responsible for the present disaster in Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is.”

      The article, of course, generally makes sense. Turkey would do better, in its dealings with the Kurds, to seek better relations with its neighbors Iraq and Syria, who have large Kurdish populations. Based on our experience, we would call them Kurdish Syrians and Kurdish Iraqis. Turkey stood by and watched us create a virtual Kurdish state in northern Iraq and now has a confused policy regarding Syria and the Kurds. Turkey should understand that there are forces interested in creating a Kurdistan carved out of Iraq and Syria and making Turkey’s policies toward the Kurds very complicated.

      But the gratuitous comment in the quote above about Assad being responsible for the disaster in Syria is absurd. Assad and his father have been targets of the US and Israel for decades and the disaster in Syria was caused by their policies and their willing accomplices, the Turks and the Saudis. Is the author really going to describe what is going on as a civil war? Assad is authoritarian, he employs harsh tactics in a harsh world, but he is also the elected president of Syria, and to argue that he doesn’t have the support of the majority of the people, is to be blind to reality.

      If everyone is so interested in democracy for Syria, why the insistence on Assad must go rather than have him stand for election?

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