The United States and its allies Britain and France launched a much-anticipated strike in Syria around 4 a.m. local time April 14. Despite the late hour, Ankara was wide awake. Senior government officials watched US President Donald Trump’s remarks live (which were made the night of April 13 US time). While his statement was somewhat vague, from Ankara’s perspective Trump was clear on two issues: Britain and France are allies, and Syria, Iran and Russia are foes.
Turkey’s Syria policy can hardly be called consistent except for one goal: overthrowing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Officials in Ankara compete over bragging rights for who has greater disdain for the Assad regime. They were pleased to hear Trump call Assad “a monster” and make reference to a “very terrible regime.”
Pro-government media outlets did not report that in his initial speech April 13, Trump named four Middle Eastern countries (Qatar, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia) as friends — Turkey was not among them. There was good reason for Trump’s omission, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had posed April 4 in a three-way handshake in Ankara with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Immediately after the airstrikes, US Defense Department officials announced that the goal was to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons program. The United States clearly stated that these strikes were conducted neither to alter the course of current US policy nor to depose the Assad regime.
Upon hearing this, a senior bureaucrat in Ankara told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “We are not surprised but we are disappointed. Although this is a good step, it is too little, too late. There was some hope that Trump would be different than [former President Barack] Obama and take the bull by the horns. It seems like this is just an opportunity for the Trump administration to distract the American public’s attention. Not much will change for us in northern Syria.”
The hashtag #SavasaHayir (No to War) was the first trending response to appear on Turkish social media in the early morning hours after the airstrikes. The first official statement came from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “We welcome this operation that has eased humanity’s conscience in the face of the attack in Douma, largely suspected to have been carried out by the [Syrian] regime.”
Following this statement, other officials commented on the US-led strikes. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called it a “positive step,” yet added that “for permanent peace more is needed.” Then Yildirim complained about the West. “For the last seven years people have been dying. Do you remember your humanity only when chemical weapons are used?” he asked. He paid homage to Erdogan, saying, “Only one country works for peace in Syria; the name of that country is Turkey and the name of that leader is Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”
Meanwhile, government spokesman and Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag rushed to tell the press that NATO’s Incirlik Air Base in Adana was not used in the airstrikes and that Turkey was informed in advance of the attacks.
Speaking at his party’s rally in Istanbul on April 14, Erdogan concurred with Bozdag and told the crowd of his sleepless night following the events in Syria. Erdogan applauded and welcomed the allied mission. “The Syrian regime received the message that its massacres would not be left unanswered,” Erdogan said, saying that he finds the decision appropriate, and that whoever is responsible for the death of innocent children should pay for this. Yet the Turkish president was critical that these kind of actions are limited to being used in response to chemical weapons exclusively. He said conventional weapons, which kill many more people than chemical weapons, need to be addressed as well.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu appeared in front of cameras with a determined attitude and said unless Syria is rescued from this regime, chaos will return. Cavusoglu said that there should have been a strike much sooner against the regime, which he said has killed more than 1 million people, and that if Assad is kept in power he will keep on killing. Cavusoglu also emphasized that the most important country in these efforts is Turkey.
Given Turkey’s conspicuous support for the US-led strike on Syria, Al-Monitor asked Turkish officials and pundits about how this support would affect Turkish relations with Russia and Iran. They were all confident it would not have a negative impact on Turkish-Russian affairs. However, a senior official said, “We need Russian cooperation to keep the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] in northern Syria in check. We need to be on good terms with Russia.” In all public statements, Turkish officials diligently targeted Syria and the West exclusively, leaving Russia and Iran out of the picture.
A few hours later, Erdogan’s office announced that Putin and the Turkish president had a phone conversation and agreed to continue efforts for a political solution in Syria. Another bureaucrat told Al-Monitor, “It is more complicated with Iran. It is a Muslim country and it is difficult for us domestically to justify targeting Iran directly.”
The Turkish opposition said no to war and resorted to social media, by late afternoon generating the trending hashtag #SuriyeninYanindayiz (We Are With Syria) criticizing the Justice and Development Party (AKP) for supporting the Western military attacks on a Muslim country on a holy night. April 13 was the day marking the night of Miraj (Ascension), one of five holy nights in the life of Prophet Muhammad. Ozturk Yilmaz, a former consul general to Mosul who was held captive by the Islamic State for 101 days, used the hashtag as well. Yilmaz is now the deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party. He tweeted a video message asking Erdogan, who aspires to be the leader of all Muslims, how he could cheer on Muslim countries getting bombed?
Since the airstrikes, several prominent AKP figures have refrained from commenting about the strikes on social media. Ersoy Dede, a columnist for the pro-AKP daily Star, asked, “Is this a [military] operation or a show to advertise [US] weapons?” Daily Sabah columnist Metih Altinok labeled the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s comments as a necessity of diplomatic lexicon and explained that he was not happy with the US-led strikes in Syria.
The gap between the AKP’s official rhetoric and the civilian pro-AKP voices was most visible in the public reactions to Bulent Yildirim’s comments. Yildirim is the chairman of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which was responsible for organizing the Mavi Marmara flotilla to the Gaza Strip in 2010. Yildirim was critical of the airstrikes because the number of missiles was not sufficient. His comment that these attacks did not satisfy his hopes generated an uproar on social media. Particularly left-leaning commentators ridiculed the Islamists’ alliance with the West in bombing a Muslim nation.
The opposition criticized Turkish foreign policy as impossible to decode. Headlines from the leftist daily Cumhuriyet read “Imperialists bombed, AKP cheered.” However, to understand Turkish foreign policy, Ankara’s disdain for the Assad family has to be taken into consideration, as that has been the only consistent point in Erdogan’s speeches since 2011. Knowing this well, pro-AKP figures are confident they can score some points for bashing Assad. On April 8, for example, the Washington correspondent for the English-language Daily Sabah, Ragip Soylu, tweeted to Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser John Bolton, “May God grant you enough Tomahawks to screw Assad and his backers.” Yet he conveniently did not name Russia or Iran in his tweet. And that omission, in a nutshell, succinctly summarizes Turkish policy on Syria.