History is full of failed grand narratives. Just as George W. Bush’s idealistic “freedom agenda” crumbled when his occupation of Iraq produced a divided and bloody country, the freedom agenda of Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a much less belligerent but similarly idealistic vision of the Middle East — ran aground in Syria.
Mr. Erdogan’s idealism was boosted with the Arab Spring of 2011, when secular dictatorships fell, opening the way for popular Islamist parties. Mr. Erdogan believed that his own success story in Turkey would be repeated all across the Middle East.
However, mere election victories didn’t secure any of these nascent democracies: Islamists still had to reconcile with the more secular segments of society. So far, this has succeeded only in Tunisia. In Egypt, a secular backlash led to a ruthless military coup; Libya never recovered from civil war; and even in Turkey, which was supposed to be a “model” for Arabs, civil liberties are on the decline and political polarization is on the rise.
The real nightmare has been Syria. Turkey emerged early on as a key supporter of the opposition there but couldn’t realize its dream of a democratic and pro-Turkish Syria. What Mr. Erdogan got instead was more than 700,000 refugees and constant threats from both the Syrian regime and opposition extremists.
Turkey, like much of the Western world, was wrong in its calculations about Syria, and perhaps unwittingly contributed to the chaos. But was Turkey malicious, as well — to the extent of intentionally killing hundreds of defenseless civilians?
That’s what the prize-winning journalist, Seymour Hersh, recently claimed in The London Review of Books, where he presented one of the most intriguing conspiracy theories of late: That a chemical attack on the Damascus suburb Ghouta in August 2013, widely believed to be the work of the Syrian regime, was in fact orchestrated by Turkey. In other words, a war crime that killed some 1,500 civilians was not another monstrosity perpetrated by President Bashar al-Assad, but rather by Mr. Erdogan, who supposedly wanted to create a pretext for an American military intervention in Syria.
This wild argument has probably been well received in Damascus, Tehran and Moscow. Yet, both Washington and Ankara have unequivocally denied it. Moreover, many independent analysts of the Syrian civil war have pointed out flaws in Mr. Hersh’s argument, the bulk of which is based on an unnamed “former intelligence official.”
Mr. Hersh dismissed key facts related to the behavior of the Syrian regime: After the chemical attack on Ghouta, for example, Mr. Assad’s forces kept bombing the area with conventional weapons, and did not allow the United Nations investigation team to examine the area for four days.
With regards to Turkey, Mr. Hersh makes a series of wild claims: Turkey’s national intelligence agency must have first secretly produced sarin gas (while Turkey’s whole military arsenal is conventional and NATO-compliant). Then, it must have obtained Russian-manufactured rockets, modified them to look like the rockets used by Mr. Assad’s armed forces, then secretly smuggled at least a dozen of these two-meter-long missiles into a regime-held part of Damascus, where they were fired into an urban area, willfully killing hundreds. It depicts a Turkish government that is not just very proficient, but also very cruel.
Yet both claims crumble under closer scrutiny. First, Turkish intelligence is not that dexterous. One of the key pieces of “evidence” that Mr. Hersh misinterprets — the wiretapped audio files of a secret meeting at the Turkish Foreign Ministry — unveils a Turkish government that feels threatened by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, an Al Qaeda offshoot, while discussing, fruitlessly, what could be done against this menace within the boundaries of international law. At some point, the Turkish intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, says in passing that if Turkey decides to strike ISIS, a pretext can be created by “firing a few rockets into empty land.”
Some members of the Turkish opposition and Mr. Hersh see a grand conspiracy in this loose statement. But it actually confirms the opposite: the moral and physical limits of Turkey’s covert actions. (Meanwhile, the very fact that the meeting has been wiretapped and exposed on the Internet calls into question Mr. Hersh’s portrayal of Turkey’s masterfully competent intelligence agencies.)
Nor is Ankara malicious enough to orchestrate a chemical attack on civilians. In fact, Turkey’s internationally praised accommodation of hundreds of thousands of refugees shows that it genuinely cares for the tragedy suffered by ordinary Syrians, and especially of Sunnis, whose identity deeply resonates with Turkey’s ruling elite. There is an affinity that goes beyond realpolitik.
There’s no doubt that Mr. Erdogan is becoming an increasingly authoritarian leader at home. But an unprovoked attack on the Syrian civilians he has been striving to protect is beyond the pale.
If there’s anything that characterizes Mr. Erdogan’s foreign policy, it’s not well-crafted conspiracy, but rather an idealism tainted by excessive emotion, ideology and delusions of grandeur. At first, he thought Turkey could persuade Mr. Assad to become a democrat. When that failed, he believed Turkey had enough power to topple Mr. Assad by supporting the opposition. And finally, he believed that America was willing to do the job.
All of those were miscalculations. But America and Turkey are now closer to each other than ever before when it comes to Syria because Turkey recognizes the threat from radical jihadis within the opposition. Extravagant conspiracy theories should be cast aside, and Ankara and Washington should actually begin discussing new ways to end the disastrous civil war. A Syria free from jihadist terror, and from the state terrorism of Mr. Assad, is their common goal.
Mustafa Akyol is a columnist and the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.