Daniel Pipes now has a piece out in National Review Online, titled “Erdoğan and Assad at War.” His article joins the long list of arguments (see Michael Koplow’s posts about some of them here and here, and follow Dov Friedman as he tweets his takedowns) that misunderstand the nature and contours of the Turkish-Syrian relationship, the role of the US and NATO in it, and the likely future of their relations, particularly as it pertains to a presumed war.
It seems easiest to go through the article’s main points one by one.
Pipes begins by asking “Why is the Turkish government acting so aggressively against the Assad regime in Syria?” It’s hard to understand how this is a viable question; if anything, the question should be reversed. At the beginning of the protests and then violence in Syria, Turkish leaders, particularly Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, continually warned the Syrian regime to stop its violent clamp down on the demonstrations, threatening repercussions. Assad didn’t, and there weren’t any.
Moreover, Ankara did nothing while PKK-affiliated groups continued to operate in Syria, while Turkish planes were shot down from within Syria, and while Syrian refugees were driven across the border into Turkey. It wasn’t until the beginning of October, when Syrian military shelling landed directly on Turkish villages and civilians, that Turkey began to respond with military force. That response consisted of targeted return fire: no air campaign, no invasion (despite troops being moved to the border), and no widespread or heavy bombardment. It was, in short, a very limited response that cannot qualify as “aggressive.”
Pipes continues with a series of theories to explain why Erdoğan fired back into Syria. These are all plausible, in that Ankara would much prefer the Syrian civil war brings to power a government more favorable to its interests. But no evidence is provided for any of these ideas.
Next, Pipes claims Erdoğan’s actions “fit into a context going back a half-century.” This, too, is problematic because the AKP government that Erdoğan leads doesn’t have a precedent in the past fifty years of Turkish history. It also ignores the government’s effort (captured succinctly in the “zero problems” framework) to warm up relations with Syria (and Iraq and Iran) in the 2000s after years of tensions and disputes, even at the expense of strong and beneficial ties with Israel. It wasn’t until the Syrian regime began to brutally attack its own citizens that relations deteriorated.
The pre-AKP secular leaders who led Turkey also engaged in a variety of policies, from neutrality, to alternating between daring and caution, to a more hand-off approach to the Middle East, to a more direct engagement with the region. This half-century, then, is comprised of different parties, leaders, and foreign policies that, while they all share a general disposition toward the avoidance of direct conflict, don’t represent a trend that explains why a state would respond with force to the shelling of its civilians.
In what seems to at first be a side argument but really underpins the entire article, Pipes then claims that Erdoğan has a “presumed goal of…bringing sharia to Turkey.” This is a sensitive accusation, and there is genuine debate about his and the AKP’s ultimate objectives. But to state that it is “presumed” without evidence or supporting arguments undermines the claim. It’s also not clear how it matters for the Syrian-Turkish cross-border violence.
Pipes makes the same style of accusation that the AKP is engaged in a “neo-Ottoman course,” which is weak for the same reasons as the sharia claim. This seems to tie into his effort to cast the Turkish-Syria violence in sectarian terms, when Pipes specifically writes that the “Sunni Erdoğan” denounced the “Alawi Assad.” It is as though an AKP pursuit of Ottomanism (that is, the capture of the entire Middle East) is explained by the fact that Turkey and Syria are now enemies (conveniently ignoring their earlier friendship).
Pipes concludes by arguing that “A decade of success went to Erdoğan’s head, tempting him into a Syrian misadventure,” and that he “is doubling down on his jihad against the Assad regime, driving hard for its collapse and his salvation.”
As I’ve written before, I agree that Erdoğan decision-making is sometimes hampered by his affective and emotional attachments. But given how long Erdoğan waited to respond to Syrian provocations, and given that Syrian shells killed Turkish citizens, and given that Pipes supports the argument that when Hamas rockets rain down on Israeli civilians it is appropriate and necessary for the state to respond with force to protect its citizens, I don’t see how Erdoğan succumbed to any kind of temptation.
In strategic terms, the Syrian violence is a critical issue that could impact on regional politics and affect American interests in the Middle East. To this point, then, we need careful analysis, not polemical claims unattached to evidence.