by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 4, Rajab, 1434)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had hoped during his Washington visit to convince US President Barack Obama to militarily get involved in Syria. The American president did not buy Erdogan’s allegations against Damascus forcing the new pasha to return empty-handed.
Hitherto, the Turkish people were largely oblivious to the ongoing killing and destruction in Syria until the recent events, most significantly the twin car bombings in Reyhanli, Hatay province on May 11. The town is located on the Syrian border and has faced the influx of Syrian refugees escaping violence. On that fateful day, two bombs went off in the town center leaving more than 50 people dead and 150 wounded. The bombings shocked the Turkish people bringing home the true face of war that has turned neighboring Syria into a living hell and left them with concerns that the violence may spread to Turkey and consume it also in fire and blood. Yet the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) seemed to be unaffected by the implications of such a horrific incident. Government officials, principally Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, minutes after the bombings, blamed Damascus without even waiting for an investigation and issued threats against the Syrian government.
The initial investigation indicated that the attacks were well organized and the explosives were of military grade. The vehicles, which were used in the attacks, were purchased in Turkey a year ago and had been kept off the road in order to avoid detection. So far seven people have been arrested but there is no evidence indicating Syria’s involvement in the attacks. According to initial investigations, the bombings might have been executed by various countries’ intelligence agencies that have proxies in the region. That is why the following day when the dust settled a bit, the facts forced the government to take a more prudent position.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed sure it was Damascus that had plotted the Reyhanli bombings but stated his government will “maintain our extreme cool-headedness in the face of efforts and provocations to drag us into the bloody quagmire. Those who target Turkey will be held to account sooner or later; great states retaliate more powerfully, but when the time is right… We are taking our steps in a coolheaded manner.”
Nevertheless, considering its aggressive and warmongering approach to the Syrian war, the Turkish government could indeed have exploited the opportunity by continuing to blame Syria for the bombings and launched retaliatory strikes against Syrian targets. This is what Turkey did when an artillery shell hit a house in Sanliurfa and killed five Turkish citizens in November 2012. Ankara immediately blamed the Syrian Army, and the Turkish Army launched a counter attack without bothering with an investigation. The attack reportedly killed several Syrian soldiers.
But this time the situation was different. There was neither talk of military intervention against Syria nor a no-fly zone by the European governments who had earlier pushed hard for such an agenda. Owing to increasing activities of the takfiri/salafi groups in the Syrian conflict, Western governments have distanced themselves from direct involvement in the conflict hence they have been supporting “moderate fractions” in the Free Syrian Army. Also, unwavering support of Russia that recently provided Syria with advanced S-300 air defense missiles and sophisticated Yakhont anti-ship missiles deterred any possibility of a military adventure against Syria.
This is why Erdogan toned down his rhetoric against Syria and perhaps wanted to wait for his visit to the US to meet President Obama. The US remained the only hope for Erdogan for a joint operation against Syria as only the state-of-the-art US war machinery could overcome Syrian defense systems but not without incurring casualties. The Washington visit was hugely significant for Erdogan who was very optimistic that he would get what he wanted; hence he did not even pay a visit to Reyhanli. Instead he said he would visit Reyhanli when he returns. Before leaving for the US, he also said, “…during the visit to America many changes will take place.”
What Erdogan meant was that he would convince Obama to enforce a non-fly zone in Syria, which would be of crucial help to the rebels to topple the Syrian government. In order to convince Obama, Erdogan brought a dossier to his meeting to prove that the Syrian Army had used chemical weapons against the rebels. Obama had earlier said that “usage of chemical weapons was ‘a redline’.”
Further, in order to get the US involved in the conflict, Erdogan worked hard to convince Obama that they share their concerns regarding the “extremist groups” such as Jabhat al-Nusrah. Turkey, which is working with the secular FSO factions, has said that “extremist groups” will be eliminated once the government is toppled. Erdogan made his case on two occasions on May 17: first in an official meeting at the White House, and second in a private dinner again at the White House. Erdogan was accompanied by Foreign Minister Davutoglu, Director of Turkish Intelligence (MIT) Hakan Fidanoglu and other ministers. According to the Turkish language news channel NTV, during the 3 hours and 10 minutes long dinner, Fidanoglu handed Obama intelligence reports and so-called evidence, which allegedly proved that the Syrian Army had used chemical weapons against the rebels. He also presented intelligence reports that indicated Syrian government’s involvement in the bombings in Reyhanli.
Yet it seems the laborious work of the Turkish delegation did little to convince Obama to undertake joint US-Turkey action against Syria. In a joint press conference, which followed the official meeting, Obama said, “This is also an international problem… But it’s not going to be something that the United States does by itself. And I don’t think anybody in the region, including the Prime Minister, would think that US unilateral actions in and of themselves would bring about a better outcome inside of Syria.” Obama also said the US did not have any specific information regarding who used the chemical weapons in Syria. This politely rejected Erdogan’s claims.
In fact Turkish government claims were already rejected two weeks earlier when United Nations human rights investigators gathering testimony from victims of alleged chemical weapons and sarin gas in Syria said their information indicated rebel forces had used the nerve agent sarin. One of the lead investigators Carla Del Ponte said this in a television interview with Reuters news agency.
The Syrian Army’s recent gains on the ground especially the capture of the strategic town of al-Qusayr seem to indicate that the endgame has already begun in Syria. If advance of the Syrian Army accompanied by Hizbullah fighters continues to clear up rebel held areas around Homs, this might lead to total victory for Bashar al-Asad’s government. This is a nightmare scenario for Istanbul and Turkey is desperate to avoid this but it seems helpless. Erdogan has only himself and his foreign minister to blame for such an ill-conceived policy.