An Ultimatum That Boomeranged

(Co-authored with Yusuf Buluç)[i]

The people of Turkey held their breath on the eve of the deadline set in the ultimatum  President Erdoğan served on the Syrian regime promising severe military punishment if  its forces  were not to withdraw to lines drawn in the so-called “Sochi agreement” between Russia and Turkey.  Evidently, there was no way that the regime, still recognized by the UN as the legitimate government of Syria, could heed this warning as it would amount to yielding its hard-won sovereign territory to Turkey’s control. More so, such withdrawal would have been hailed by some jihadist armed groups, listed by the UN as terrorist organizations,  which have taken most of the civilian inhabitants of the Idlib province as hostage in their quest to winning a rump of Syria to be dismembered. The regime, its air force largely under Russian command and control, reacted to the Turkish ultimatum not by resorting to terse and rejectionist rhetoric but unleashing a bombing campaign resulting in massive loss of life not recorded outside Turkish territory since the Korean war.

A tragedy befell the nation with the death of at least 36 of its sons in arms. While their loved ones were in a state of deep grief and bereavement for their irreplaceable losses, all players in the political arena including the Turkish government took this as a new milestone to maximize on their respective agendas and interests. It must be agonizing for most of us to see that happen, but this seems to be what is called “realpolitik”.

Not surprisingly, we are witnessing the entire spectrum of diplomatic activity unfolding at breakneck pace bilaterally among key players which include Turkey, Russia, US, Iran, France and Germany and multilaterally at the UN, NATO and the EU. And soon, Presidents Erdoğan and Putin are supposed to meet. The reader may well question the conspicuous absence of Syria on whose lands this battle is being fought. The answer is all players have some means of communication with Syria except Turkey who is probing that avenue through Russia and possibly Iran but also heavily bombing regime’s forces in retribution.

At this critical juncture a recounting of the detail of such diplomatic and military activity will overshadow the real questions that need to be asked as they concern the heart of the situation we find ourselves in.

Following the attack, Turkish and Russian officials came up with conflicting versions of the tragedy. Turkish government’s spokesmen, a joint statement by the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) and three opposition parties and mainstream media called the attack “treacherous”, “heinous”, “dastardly”, “evil”. Understandably, nationwide grief runs deep, very deep. Nonetheless, the government and the opposition need to step back, take a bird’s eye view of the Syrian conflict and question why we lost those young men and whether the tragedy could be avoided.

Sadly, as the record of the last decade shows, this may not be the case. Yet, answers to the following are fundamental to a broad assessment of JDP’s Syria policy and charting a different path for the future:

  • Why did we become the leading actor of the regime change project in Syria, why?
  • Why did we fail to reassess our involvement when our partners in the project started to leave the scene?
  • If the target was not Syria but Turkey, why didn’t we support Syria’s, even Assad regime’s stability from day one?
  • Is regime change still a possibility or a lost cause?
  • Do we genuinely support Syria’s independence, unity and territorial integrity?
  • Which are the powers targeting Turkey and Turkey’s territorial integrity?
  • What are our political and security interests in Idlib?
  • What will be the impact of continuing confrontation in Idlib on Turkey-Russia relations, our trade, tourism?
  • Are we able to deploy the Russian S-400 batteries on the Syrian border?
  • Given the government’s past lack of confidence in them, do we now trust out traditional allies?
  • How come did we fail to see that the refugee problem would become a huge challenge in itself?

This is by no means an exhaustive list but enough to show that Turkey has to rise above the details of what is currently transpiring in Idlib, who controls which road, what is the situation in this town or that, which group is terrorist and which group is not and look at the broad picture with nothing but Turkey’s interests in mind.

While the Turkish artillery is raining bombs on Syrian forces, the Turkish government on the political front has chosen to bomb its neighbors and allies with an explicit encouragement of refugees whom it has been hosting at punishing cost, to break through the borders of Greece and Bulgaria in order to jolt the EU into a politically more positive and  financially more generous action. Its potentially dramatic humanitarian consequences notwithstanding in certain circles this too seems to be regarded as pursuit of “realpolitik”. Doesn’t that also mean the refugees have now become a pawn in a power game?

Given the dismal track record of the JDP government’s foreign policy, mainly consisting of sharp zig zags and oscillations, the Turkish public at least at this critical juncture is entitled to know exactly what causes will be pursued, which of its interests will be served, which instruments will be used and at what cost. As the policies so far implemented have sunk Turkey deeper into the Syrian quagmire, the people of Turkey, not just the parliamentary opposition, must express their justified mistrust in the next steps the government says it will take. If we still have the slightest claim to be a democracy, such questioning would not at all amount to treason but represent an act of patriotism.


[i]   Yusuf Buluc is a retired Turkish Ambassador and a former Head of NATO’s Department of Defense Plans and Policy

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