Since the Arab Spring of 2011, Turkey’s foreign policy has been focused on Syria and on the ousting of its ‘Alawite President Bashar Assad, who Turkey hoped would be replaced by a like-minded Sunni ruler from the Muslim Brotherhood.
During the 13 years of its rule, Turkey’s government, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), steered the country away from its traditional alliance with the West and towards the Middle East and the Islamic world, claiming historic hegemony over, and responsibility for, the countries of the region – a role that Turkey sees as its Ottoman legacy.
President [formerly PM] Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Prime Minister [formerly FM] Ahmet Davutoglu designed a neo-Ottomanist, expansionist and foreign policy that involved grand aspirations to become the region’s main superpower.
They supported Islamist jihadist factions in many countries, incurring sharp criticism from the governments of Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq and especially Syria, where they played a major role in sparking and escalating the civil war.
The AKP government allowed free passage to thousands of jihadi fighters into Syria, and provided material and logistic support to radical organizations that are fighting the Assad regime, including ISIS, Jabhat Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham –with the exception of the Kurdish forces, whom Turkey terms “terrorists” despite their important role in fighting ISIS.
After Turkey, a NATO ally, finally opened its strategically important Incirlik airbase for the use of coalition forces in July 2015, the U.S. and the West turned a blind eye to Turkey’s aggression against the Kurds, and agreed to most of Turkey’s demands, including by supporting its program for training and equipping an opposition force in Syria to fight both ISIS and the Assad regime– a project that turned out to be a failure.
When the U.S. and Europe rejected Turkey’s initiative for a safe zone in Syria where Turkey would build cities to settle refugees, Turkey pressured them by allowing hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees from camps in Turkey to migrate to European countries, thus presenting Europe with a massive refugee problem.
Russia’s current involvement in Syria has definitely put an end to Turkey’s safe-zone plans. Turkey’s opposition parties, as well as its independent media, have for years criticized Erdogan and Davutoglu’s Syrian policies as “disastrous,” yet the AKP government was confident that its plans for Syria would produce the outcome it desired.
AKP leaders treated Syria as a domestic issue, and claimed that “not a bird could fly over that country without Turkey’s approval.” In August 2012 Davutoglu predicted that Assad would fall within a few weeks, and in September of that year Erdogan announced that “very soon, we [Turks]will meet and hug our [Sunni] brethren in liberated Damascus, say the Fatiha [prayer] at the tomb of Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyoubi and pray together in freedom at the Emevi mosque.”