Turkey’s miscalculation in its Middle East foreign policy and expectation has led Ankara to undertake the strangest of military operations ever witnessed in this part of the ever-so-turbulent world.
However before we delve into the matter at hand, it is important first to look at some background at how events unfolded leading up to the bizarre military expedition in order to better understand why Turkey committed an almost brigade-sized military unit to rescue an army officer who died here in 1236.
Let it not be said that the Middle East cannot still surprise the rest of the world especially when it comes to strange politics. The Middle East remains a part of the world where if you want to predict what may happen, look at the most unlikely scenario and work your way from there.
While most modern nations are doing away with borders and opening up to their neighbors, some Middle Eastern countries are instead erecting barriers and borders and deploying larger numbers of troops along their frontiers.
Case in point: relations between Syria and Turkey moved from a very warm, good neighborly, tight friendship, in which Turkish cabinet ministers attended cabinet level meetings in Syria and Syrian ministers would do the same in Ankara. Then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a frequent visitor to Syria and the Syrian president went to the Turkish capital.
Relations went from one extreme to another, to where they are today: stone cold with Mr. Erdogan, now president, vowing to see Assad thrown out of power. Indeed, Ankara has toiled hard to undermine the Syrian regime, hoping to see the end of Bashar Assad. Naturally, one way of achieving this was to help the Syrian opposition, something Ankara was very generous and accommodating towards. The Turks allowed the Syrian opposition, including the extremists of groups such as the Islamic State to use Turkey as a base, granting them transit rights, training camps, allowing them to recruit, and so forth.
However, as anyone with an inkling of understanding of the Middle East could have predicted, nothing good would have ever emerged from such an unholy alliance. Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym, AKP, was banking on the Muslim Brotherhood controlling the region stretching from Syria to Egypt and on to Libya and Tunisia, sweeping along the way Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.
Instead what occurred was mayhem in Libya and to a lesser degree in Egypt and rather than having a sympathetic Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Syria on its southern border, instead Turkey is now faced with a potentially dangerous and highly volatile neighbor – and although Sunni Muslim (like the majority of Turks), Syria in its current transformation now represents a clear and present danger to Turkey.
Adding insult to injury, so far as the Turks are concerned, Ankara’s long-time preoccupation and mistrust of the Kurds is now more worrisome than ever as the Kurds are emerging from their confrontation with IS stronger and more determined than ever.
Ankara’s dream of reviving a strong and politically healthy Sunni Muslim belt across North Africa to the Levant is disappearing as fast as a desert mirage. That Turkish dream is turning into a Turkish nightmare as Ankara now finds fanatics at its gates.
As one might deduce, it was only a matter of time before Turkey would eventually clash with the Islamists.
Which brings us around to the recent Turkish military operation that saw Ankara order a battalion-sized incursion into Syria to rescue one long-time dead officer and 38 live Turkish soldiers who were there to guard the dead man’s tomb and perhaps help Erdogan avoid embarrassment.
In what Burak Bekdil, a columnist for the Turkish daily Hürriyet and a fellow at the Middle East Forum described as “one of the most bizarre military operations in recent history,” on the night of February 21, Turkey dispatched, 572 troops, 39 tanks, 57 armored vehicles and 100 other vehicles to extract 38 Turkish soldiers assigned to guards the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the Ottoman Empire’s founder.
The site was located inside Syrian territory but under an agreement with France, at the time, the power ruling Syria, it was considered Turkish territory.
Fearing that ISIS would choose to destroy the site, as they have taken to demolishing other religious sites and historic artifacts in museums, Turkey chose to preempt any such actions by ISIS and moved the burial site and then destroyed the original site before IS could destroy it.
“The tomb rescue operation, at best, could be considered a retreat with a rational explanation,” said Burak Bekdil.
Clearly the Turkish government does not want to confront ISIS, which until recently was its comrade-in-arms against Mr. Assad.
Claude Salhani is a senior editor with Trend and a political analyst.