The car bombs that killed more than 40 people last weekend in a town in southern Turkey are a reckoning for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He had made himself party to the fight over Syria and vowed that he would see the end of Bashar Assad’s rule. But Assad has hunkered down, and the Turkish leader who calls on U.S. President Barack Obama this week faces a dilemma. In the face of Syrian provocations, Erdogan threatens dire consequences, yet draws back, sheltered behind the assertion that his country won’t be drawn into a full-scale war with the regime in Damascus.
The bombs in Reyhanli, a quaint border town in the province of Hatay, were just the latest in a series of provocations by Syrian forces. Give Assad credit for his audacity. Like a gambler with steady nerves, he has bet that Erdogan won’t pull the trigger.
In June 2012, a Turkish F-4 fighter jet was downed over Syrian territorial waters. In October, Syrian mortar shells hit a Turkish border town, killing five civilians. There have been other attacks. Life alongside the Syrian killing fields has exacted its toll on the Turks. More than 300,000 refugees have spilled over the border.
The overwhelming majority of them have settled in Hatay, a region with a complicated history and a tangled demography. It was once a Syrian district, Alexandretta, with communities of Turks, Kurds, Turkmen, Orthodox Christians, Armenians, Sunni Arabs and Alawites. The Turks annexed it in 1939, after the French Mandate authorities gave it up.
The border didn’t annul the bonds of language and ethnicity and sectarian attachments. Antioch (Antakya) is a bilingual city, as Syrian in culture as it is Turkish. The Sunnis from Aleppo and Idlib streaming into Hatay find relatives and kinsmen on the Turkish side of the border. They also find Alawites, supporters of Assad who bristle at the favouritism shown to the Syrian rebels by Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party.
A year or so ago, there was facile talk in Turkey of a neo-Ottomanist calling. Erdogan himself was prone to that vision. For him the drive of the modern Turkish state for a place in Europe held no attraction. Syria, by virtue of its geographic contiguity, was a special prize.
Erdogan’s options in Syria have narrowed by the day. He has arrayed his government on the side of the Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf, an alliance that isn’t popular in Turkey. He wages his political battles under the gaze of secularists at odds with his pan-Islamic vision.
At the altar of this vision, Erdogan broke off Turkey’s tight cooperation with Israel that was forged by his country’s military and intelligence services. For four years, he has courted the Arab street with an ardent anti-Zionism that puts the most passionate Arab nationalists to shame. His condemnation of the recent Israeli airstrikes — on Damascus depots of Iranian missiles meant to be delivered to Hezbollah — is a stark example of the triumph of ideology over realpolitik.
The sincerity of his attitude toward the slaughter in Syria might be conceded. But the plunge into a quagmire was made easier by the Turkish leader’s conviction that the U.S. was bound to ride to the rescue. The prime minister convinced himself that he had a close bond with Obama.
It is forgotten now that Obama’s first Islamic journey as president wasn’t to Cairo but to Ankara. The Turks misread him: They weren’t prepared for the large-scale American retreat from zones of American primacy.
Turkey wanted the Syrian rebellion armed and supported; it wasn’t troubled by the Islamist groups that had taken up arms. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood leaders were a known entity — Istanbul is their favoured base — and the "Turkish model," they proclaim, is what they want for Syria after the fall of the dictatorship.
The regime change in Syria that Turkey is committed to is not Washington’s program. Two secretaries of state, first Hillary Clinton, then John Kerry, have petitioned Russia to abandon Assad. At the core of Obama’s Syria policy is an unstated commitment to a negotiated settlement between the Alawite regime and the Sunni rebellion. The Turks know there can be no middle ground between the two.
The Turkish leader who will meet Obama this week is politically weakened; the Arabs he bet on appear in no need of a new Ottoman sultanate. And the American leader he will sit down with has shown a disturbing ability to avert his gaze from the pain and the ordeal of Syria — and from Turkey’s stakes in that conflict.
Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of The Syrian Rebellion.