Syria a key factor in the Erdogan-Davutoglu rift
While there are many reasons for the rift between Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his friend and boss, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, including human rights, authoritarianism and corruption, differences over Syria were also prominent on the list of disputes.
Davutoglu is set to step down as prime minister and leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at an extraordinary party meeting. The move is believed to have been sparked over Davutoglu’s delay in turning Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government, a change that would give Erdogan full executive power.
The Syria file has been an obsession for both men since 2011. Nine years ago, Davutoglu, then chief adviser to Erdogan, hosted Syrian academics in Istanbul. They were travelling to build bridges with the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus — on his advice — and to win favours with Erdogan.
Davutoglu spoke of the need to revise schoolbooks to rewrite the history of Syrian-Ottoman relations. He wanted to turn a new page with the Syrian people, both through economic integration and a directed flow of academic programmes, but he wanted to do it quietly, with minimal media attention. Erdogan, however, was a media magnet who loved the spotlight, doing everything with maximum noise.
This difference in approach remained strong even after bilateral relations with Syria collapsed in the summer of 2011. Erdogan was always ten steps ahead of his long-time friend, often biting off more than he could chew, while Davutoglu was always low-key, frowning at the prime minister’s flamboyant approach.
Before 2011, Erdogan offered the Syrians more than he could deliver economically and after the war started he showered them with political and military promises he did not keep about red lines he would never let the Syrian regime cross. People believed him — and they were killed.
Erdogan and Davutoglu have identical ambitions when it comes to toppling the Syrian regime and replacing the government with one friendly to the AKP, created by, or affiliated to, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. But Davutoglu favoured pursuing his strategy softly and quietly, through proper channels and state institutions, whether political ones like the Foreign Ministry or military ones like the Turkish Army.
Erdogan was more ad hoc, working with non-state players, local militias, human traffickers and smugglers — spreading havoc in Syria regardless of how this might backfire inside Turkey.
He opened his country’s borders to millions of Syrian refugees, flirted with dangerous Islamic militias, allowed refugee boats to swamp European waters and sowed discord with Turkey’s Kurds, against Davutoglu’s advice.
The prime minister argued that embracing the Syrian opposition too tightly would alienate Syrian Kurds and drive them into the arms of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a separatist insurgency in Turkey since 1984.
Many Turkish secularists were also offended by Erdogan’s embrace of Islamic groups on the Syrian battlefield.
By allowing militias to use Turkish territory as a base, Erdogan left Turkish cities and towns under constant threat of attack, as in May 2013 when a car bombing killed 53 people in Reyhanli on the Syrian border.
More recently, Erdogan and Davutoglu have differed on how to deal with Russia’s military intervention in Syria. Erdogan does not want to cross Russian President Vladimir Putin; Davutoglu is more confrontational when it comes to dealing with Moscow.
When he met the Russian leader, Erdogan insisted that Turkey stands at arm’s length from Syrian belligerents and would not work with the Islamic State (ISIS) or its affiliates.
Davutoglu, speaking on Al Jazeera television, however, claimed the contrary, saying: “Would the Syrians have been able to defend Aleppo otherwise (if it were not for Turkish support)?
“If the regime doesn’t control all of the country’s territory today, this is thanks to Turkey and some other states. If the Syrian people are still in Tal Rifaat, Aleppo and Azaz, defending their lands, after… the heavy bombardment that Russia conducted there with 500 sorties and without targeting (ISIS), this is thanks to our support. Our support will continue.”
His remarks were seized on by the Kremlin, which saw them a public confession of Turkey’s direct involvement with radical Islamic groups in the Syrian cities Davutoglu mentioned, where Moscow is fighting what it brands “terrorist organisations.” Nothing could have been worse for Turkish-Russian relations, which soured after the Turks downed a Russian fighter jet in November 2015.
Some analysts say Erdogan might use Davutoglu’s resignation to blame him for the failed Syria policy that has neither ended the war nor toppled the regime in Damascus. If Erdogan is seeking a rapprochement with Moscow, then Davutoglu’s resignation might very much serve as a blessing in disguise.