Erdoğan in Syria: Speak Against Assad but Work to Help Him

Since the beginning of the Assad War (aka the Syrian Civil War) we have heard from Erdoğan a lot of strong rhetoric against Bashar Assad, but what has Erdoğan actually done against Assad from a strategic point of view?

Erdoğan did allow Qatar and Saudi Arabia to arm Syrian rebels through the Turkish-Syrian border, but that alone cannot be called a strategy to end Assad’s rule.

On the other hand, there is a long list of things which Erdoğan did and which were crucial strategic boosts to Assad. These include:

Undermining all US efforts at training moderate Syrian rebels

The US attempted repeatedly to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels. While this has been largely successful in the south (thanks to Jordanian cooperation), it has completely failed in the north, because Erdoğan was keen to undermine all US efforts in this field. He never interfered to support moderate groups backed by the US. He never instructed his Syrian followers (who are many) to cooperate with the US. To the contrary, his agents have been all along spreading venomous anti-American propaganda among the Syrian rebels.

Forbidding the establishment of a Syrian government

Erdoğan has relentlessly opposed the establishment of any government in Syria that could replace Assad’s illegitimate and criminal so-called government. He left the liberated areas in a state of political vacuum that was filled first by ISIS and next by Jabhat An-Nusrah.

Opposing the war on ISIS

Erdoğan was hostile to the war against ISIS from its inception. He refused to participate in the war, prevented Syrian rebels from working with the US in it, and even prevented the US from using the İncirlik air base. Faced with this noncooperation, the US had no practical alternative other than cooperating with the PKK-affiliate party in Syria, the PYD. This cooperation turned out to be very successful, which infuriated Erdoğan not only because the US could find a replacement for him, but also because the replacement was a political rival of his.

Facilitating the annihilation of Aleppo

For years Erdoğan watched over the catastrophe in Aleppo without doing anything serious about it. He only resolved to interfere in 2016 when the US-backed SDF alliance was approaching the city from the east. After the liberation of Manbij in August, the SDF were expected to move on Al-Bab, which would have put the SDF (and the US) very close to Aleppo. Seeing this “danger,” Putin and Erdoğan struck a deal that allowed Erdoğan to interfere—not against Assad but against the US-backed SDF. The Turkish intervention, known as Operation Euphrates Shield, drew anti-Assad fighters away from fronts in Aleppo city to new fronts against ISIS and the SDF in the northern countryside, and more importantly: it isolated Aleppo from the SDF and USA, and thus it created preferable circumstances that allowed the final annihilation of Aleppo by Assad, Iran, and Russia in the fall of 2016.

It cannot be denied that Turkey as a country did provide a lot of help to Syrians, and we are grateful for that help, but I do not view that help as coming strictly from Erdoğan. It was a help by the Turkish people. We are most grateful to Turkey and its people for that help. Erdoğan also deserves credit for that help, but it is sad that his overall strategy in Syria has been destructive.

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