Turkey’s Not-So-Subtle Shift on Syria

An old story from Istanbul in the Ottoman era mentions a Turkish imam who killed a Christian and confessed the crime, whereupon he was advised by the judge to talk things over with the mufti who told him privately that a good Muslim never admitted felony against infidels and he should simply recant his confession.  The mufti advised the greatly confused pious imam that a lie was feasible under the Koran and all he needed to do to remit his sin for speaking untruth was to feed bread to dogs.

The dogs in the Turkish Mediterranean resort of Antalya had a feast of bread on Tuesday.  The feast became unavoidable following the conclave in Antalya on Monday of Syrian opposition figures who seek to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has categorically denied that Ankara is sliding away from its earlier stance of opposing regime change in Damascus.

The conclave at Antalya was entitled “Change in Syria”.  Ankara would go ballistic if a neighboring country did to it such a thing.  The conclave at Antalya didn’t happen accidentally, either.  It was well planned.  Turkish authorities allowed it to go ahead but with one caveat: no Kurdish political parties would be invited.  The Syrian opposition activists obliged Ankara’s wish.

The conclave openly sought a regime change in Syria.  The only discord was that it couldn’t make up its mind whether a future Syria should remain secular.  The participants upheld the principles of Syria’s territorial integrity and rejected foreign military intervention but, significantly, invited international organizations to work toward ending the bloodshed in their country.

They also decided to form a 31-member advisory committee, which would operate as a government in exile.  A nine-member executive committee has been tasked with preparing a roadmap for future activities.  Conceivably, these steering bodies might be based in Turkey.

Davutoglu maintained that Ankara just couldn’t do anything to stop the conclave being held since Turkey is a “free and democratic country”.  He argued with aplomb that Ankara strives to simultaneously maintain “ties of trust” with the Assad regime and “ties of love” with the Syrian people.

The Turkish government has kept up the stance that it seeks to nudge Assad — with whom Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan claims an abiding friendship — to abjure the use of force and instead listen to the voice of the Syrian people and embark on a course of comprehensive reforms.

Ankara frequently expresses disappointment that Assad is not listening to its sincere counseling but is devising own methods to deal with the violence.  At the same time, Ankara also opposes foreign intervention in Syria.  The stance vaguely resembles Ankara’s initial position with regard to Muammar Gaddafi and Libya — that is, before Turkey’s volte face and its decision to participate in the intervention by the “coalition of the willing” under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  The major difference with Libya is, as Erdogan put it, Syria is a “domestic issue” for Turkey.

Ankara is petrified of an outbreak of civil war in Syria, given its potential for spillover.  (Alawite-dominated territories that used to be part of Syria today form Turkey’s border region with Syria.)  Proceeding from this consideration, Turkey seeks a peaceful democratic transition.  Whether a reformed system can still be under Assad’s leadership or not has been left unspoken.

Turkey has refrained from identifying with the sanctions against Syria imposed by the United States and European Union.  Erdogan is on record rather cryptically that “it is too early to make a decision [about ousting Assad], as the final decision will be the prerogative of the people of Syria”.  Turkey seems to anticipate a mediatory role for itself at some point.

Ankara insists that Assad is a sincere person but is surrounded by wolves entrenched within the state apparatus.  Curiously, the Syrian opposition overlooks Ankara’s professed warmth toward Assad.  Maybe, they do not take it to be a genuine feeling.

However, Erdogan speaks to Assad frequently on the phone and the conversations sometimes stretch over an hour and the two leaders are extremely polite toward one another with the youthful leader in Damascus explaining in detail what is all on his mind for political reform and the Turkish prime minister exhorting him to move faster.

Ankara claims credit for prompting Assad to announce the recent amnesty for political prisoners.  Erdogan said on television, “I told him that I asked him, as a brother, to take a courageous step . . . I told him that he should declare a general amnesty because it would bring such a great relief.  I said that and, thank God, he declared the amnesty two days later.”

But the intriguing part still remains beyond explanation.  The Antalya conclave included prominent Syrian figures who could one day form the nucleus of a successor regime in Damascus — prominent intellectuals, tribal chieftains, think-tankers and so on.  According to the Israeli intelligence website, Erdogan has ordered his government officials to cut ties with the Assad regime and the Antalya conclave is an indication of which way the wind is blowing.

Assad, too, seems to be signaling to Ankara that this is a game both can play.  He has invited representatives of those Kurdish parties that were kept out of the Antalya conclave to visit him in Damascus over a cup of Turkish coffee.

Invitation has been extended to 12 Kurdish parties, including the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (which, incidentally, has a Turkish branch) and the Democratic Unity Party.  These parties have been historically kept at arm’s length by Ankara.

They have gleefully accepted Assad’s invitation and they hope to present a proposal to Assad on the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region near the border with Turkey.

Now, that is dynamite.  Meanwhile, Assad has announced that his amnesty for political prisoners would also include Kurdish separatist activists and that he is open to giving Syrian citizenship to 500,000 stateless Kurds.  Assad is yet to indicate when the proposed meeting with the Kurdish leaders will take place.  He is virtually telling Ankara to do some hard thinking and not to force his hands.

Damascus enjoys the tactical advantage that the Turkish vector of the Kurdish problem is far more acute than the Syrian (or Iranian) vectors.  Alienation runs deep among the Kurds in eastern Turkey and if Kurdish nationalism rears its head from safe havens within Syria, Turkey can easily anticipate its own house catching fire.

So, the question remains: why is Turkey playing with fire?  A variety of factors are working on the Turkish mind.  First and foremost, Saudi Arabia’s influence is conditioning the Turkish thinking toward the upheaval in the Middle East as a whole.

Al-Arabiyya Television, which is Saudi-backed, has been consistently critical of Assad and gives big coverage to the Syrian opposition.  “Green money” is a powerful tool for the Saudi regime to influence the Turkish elites.  Turkey seeks investments by the wealthy Arabs, who are also unsure about the policies of the Western countries.

The “Salafi” angle no doubt binds Saudis and Turks.  The ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey has pronounced Islamist leanings and is close to the Saudi royal family.  Three-fourths of Syrian population subscribe to Sunni faith while the regime is dominated by Alawites who form only 16% of the population.  To compound matters, Turkey also has an Alawite minority.

Syria has a natural claim as a leader of the Arab world.  Turkey would prefer a weak Syria as its neighbor over which it can exercise hegemony.  Despite the bonhomie in the inter-state relations in the recent years, there are very serious border disputes and quarrels over water-sharing which are dormant just below the surface.

The AKP may even prefer the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the best organized Syrian political force, to prevail in a leadership role in a successor regime.

To be sure, geopolitics comes into play.  Syria’s strong axis with Iran under Assad’s leadership tilts the regional balance against Turkey.  Ankara sees Syria as a rival competing for influence in Iraq.

Syria’s hold over the Hamas leadership limits the scope for Turkey to play any meaningful role in the Palestinian problem.  Again, Syria and Iran’s combined clout with Hezbollah edges out Turkey from being a player in Lebanon.

In short, Syria stands right in the way of an expansion of Turkish influence in the Middle East.  The present ruling party — so-called “neo-Ottomans” — in Turkey, finds this particularly frustrating as it harbors pretensions of being the inheritors of the Ottoman legacy in the Middle East.  In short, Syria blocks Turkish ambitions as a Middle Eastern regional power that Europe will learn to respect and woo.

The Grand Mufti of Ankara would know how to atone for the ambiguities in Turkish polices toward Assad.  The dogs will have a field day.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.  His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, and Turkey.  This article was first published in Asia Times on 9 June 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.  See, also, M K Bhadrakumar, “Russia’s U-Turn” (4 June 2011).  Cf. Kurdistan Commentary, “Syrian Kurdish Parties Boycott Syrian Opposition Conference in Antalya, Turkey” (29 May 2011); “So the Syrian regime has been saying for years that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization that has links with the enemies of the Arabs.  But yesterday [30 May 2011] the regime offered an amnesty for the organization.  This is like the regime lifting the state of emergency when the regime faced a real emergency” (As’ad AbuKhalil, “Syrian Amnesty,” Angry Arab News Service, 1 June 2011); “Three Kurdish political parties in Syria have officially backed the protests that have seen thousands take to the streets to oust president Assad. . . . The parties are the Kurdish Yekiti Party, Azadi Party in Syria, and the Kurdish Future Movement” (“Kurdish Parties in Syria Throw Weight behind Protests,” AK News, 7 June 2011); James Blitz, “UK and France to Take Syria to UN” (Financial Times, 8 June 2011); Melissa Eddy, “US, Allies Try to Report Syria to UN” (Associated Press, 8 June 2011).

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