Perhaps Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hopes that lobbing artillery shells into Syria will help bring a satellite government into power in Damascus. Maybe he thinks that sending a Turkish warplane into Syrian airspace or forcing down a Syrian passenger plane coming from Russia will win him favor in the West and bring in NATO. Conceivably, it could all be a grand diversion to distract from the imminent economic crisis.
Erdoğan’s actions fit into a context going back half a century. During the Cold War, Ankara stood with Washington as a member of NATO even as Damascus served as Moscow’s Cuba of the Middle East, an arch-reliable client state. Sour Turkish-Syrian relations also had local reasons including a border dispute, disagreement over water resources, and Syrian backing of the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group. The two states reached the brink of war in 1998, when then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s capitulation averted armed conflict.
A new era began in November 2002 when Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party), a clever Islamist party that avoids terrorism and rants about a global caliphate, replaced the center-right and center-left parties that had long dominated Ankara. Governing competently and overseeing an unprecedented economic boom, the AKP’s share of the electorate grew from one-third in 2002 to one-half in 2011. It was on track to achieving Erdoğan’s presumed goal of undoing the Atatürk revolution and bringing Shariah to Turkey.
Feeling its oats, the AKP abandoned Washington’s protective umbrella and struck out on an independent neo-Ottoman course, aiming to be a regional power as it had been in centuries past. With regard to Syria, this meant ending decades-old hostilities and winning influence through good trade and other relations, symbolized by joint military exercises, Erdoğan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vacationing together, and a bevy of their ministers literally lifting the barrier that had obstructed their mutual border.
In January 2011, these plans began to unravel as the Syrian people woke from 40 years of Assad despotism and agitated, at first peacefully, then violently, for the overthrow of their tyrant. Erdoğan initially offered constructive political advice to Assad, which the latter rebuffed in favor of violent repression. In response, the Sunni Muslim Erdoğan emotionally denounced the Alawi Muslim Assad and began assisting the largely Sunni rebel force. As the conflict became more ruthless, sectarian, and Islamist, effectively becoming a Sunni-Alawi civil war, with 30,000 dead, many times that injured, and even more displaced, Turkish refuge and aid became indispensable to the rebels.
What initially seemed like a masterstroke has turned into Erdoğan’s first major misstep. The outlandish conspiracy theories he used to jail and cow the military leadership left him with a less-than-effective fighting force. Unwelcome Syrian refugees crowded into Turkish border towns and beyond. Turks overwhelmingly oppose the war policy over Syria, with special opposition coming from Alevis, a religious community making up 15 to 20 percent of Turkey’s population, distinct from Syria’s Alawis but sharing a Shiite Muslim heritage with them.
Assad took revenge by reviving support for the PKK, whose escalating violence creates a major domestic problem for Erdoğan. Indeed, Kurds — who missed their chance when the Middle East was carved up after World War I — may be the major winners from current hostilities. For the first time, the outlines of a Kurdish state with Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi, and even Iranian components can be imagined.
Damascus still has a great power patron in Moscow, where the government of Vladimir Putin offers its assistance via armaments and U.N. vetoes. Plus, Assad benefits from unstinting, brutal Iranian aid, which continues despite the mullah regime’s deep economic problems. In contrast, Ankara may still belong, formally, to NATO and enjoy the theoretical privilege of its famous Article 5, which promises that a military attack on one member country will lead to “such action as … necessary, including the use of armed force,” but NATO heavyweights show no intention of intervening in Syria.
A decade of success went to Erdoğan’s head, tempting him into a Syrian misadventure that could undermine his popularity. He might yet learn from his mistakes and backtrack, but so far the padishah of Ankara is doubling down on his jihad against the Assad regime, driving hard for its collapse and his salvation.
To answer my opening question: Turkish bellicosity results primarily from one man’s ambition and ego. Western states should stay completely away and let him be hoisted with his own petard.