Turkey and Syria: On the Bankruptcy of Neo-Ottomanist Foreign Policy (June 4, 2013)

I wrote this piece just before the Gezi protests and repression in Turkey. It provides a perspective for understanding those events, as it highlights the tragedy of Syria and how Turkish policy is implicated. 

At the end of May, the Syrian civil war consumed more than 94,000 civilians and destroyed the country’s civic and cultural heritage. In addition, the civil war crystallized regional fault lines along the sectarian lines; on the one side Sunni Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, on the other side Shiite Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah (Lebanon) represent ever-increasing nationalistic conflicts.

While Assad’s army commits war crimes, kills thousands of civilians, and unleashes its terror on its population, factions within the Free Syrian Army utilize comparable tactics to bring Assad’s supporters to submission. This is a war with plenty of religious morality but without ethics. In a recent video circulated on YouTube, a Free Syrian Army guerilla cuts the chest of a dead Syrian soldier and eats it in front of the camera. How can we make sense of this absolute brutality?

Islamists who have no interest in democratic transformation hijacked the Syrian revolution. Any salient voices for the possibility of a diplomatic solution are silenced, effectively forcing the country into a never-ending sectarian war. Can the total destruction of the social and cultural infrastructure be for the sake any political agenda or social imagination? What will happen when the regime falls? Is there a future for Syrians?

And tragically, the civil war cannot be simply contained within Syria. It is quickly expanding beyond its borders, scratching local religious, sectarian and political sensitivities, especially in Turkey and Lebanon. A recent bombing in Reyhanli—a small town at the Turkish-Syrian border with largely Arab Alevi minority population—killed 54 people and subsequently, the Turkish government quickly covered up the incident and accused a left wing fraction having close ties with Assad regime of mounting the attacks. It was a premature and doubtful conclusion. Leftist guerillas have no history of attacking civilian targets in city centers. A couple of weeks after the attacks, the Turkish hacker group Redhack uncovered some early intelligence reports that identified the possible attackers, linking them to the Al Nusra Front—an Al Qaida association operating freely in Syria—supported from Turkish bases. The government was silent about these intelligence documents.

Criminal investigation is continuing. However, no matter who executed the Reyhanli terror attacks, be it Assad sympathizers in Turkey, the Assad regime, or the Al Nusra Front, the objective is to pull Turkey into the circle of war by provoking local sectarian divisions. In fact, Turkey’s ethnic, cultural and political fabric is extremely sensitive to Syrian civil war. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lacks any governmental responsibility or wisdom; instead of carefully navigating the Syrian crisis, he gambles with the Islamists on the faith of Assad’s regime and pushes Turkey to its very limits both financially and culturally. After the Reyhanli attacks, the Turkish public became aware of the fact that Turkish foreign policy lacks any salient political calculation. There is no exit strategy. At this moment, Turkish minorities are on high alert, feeling the increasing religious and nationalistic oppression and day-to-day discrimination. Today, in a ground-breaking ceremony, Erdogan named the third Bosporus bridge as Yavuz Sultan Selim, the Ottoman king who persecuted Anatolian Alevis in the end of 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries.

Since the Islamists took control of the government over a decade ago, neo-Ottomanist imperialist ambitions have fueled Turkish foreign policy. Erdogan and his team imagined a Middle East where Turkey plays a big brother role, leading regional economic transformation into a big functioning market. The transformation in the region after the second Iraq war was considered a historic opportunity for Turkish neoliberal-Islamists. Total disbelief of western democratic models wrapped-up with Arab Occidentalism created a fertile ground for Turkey’s increasingly colonialist hunger, that accesses huge young Arab markets, reaching oil fields and extending political influence. These imperial ambitions at first presented themselves via so-called “soft power” moves; Erdogan established very close connections with the regions’ notorious dictators and leaders. For instance, he frequently visited Assad and his family, and called him a close friend. He had no trouble receiving the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights in Libya for his “distinguished service to humanity”—no, this is not a joke. He supported Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, a war criminal whose supporters committed genocide in Darfur.

When it comes to Arab Springs, Erdogan and his team were caught unprepared. He scrambled his policies to adjust to the reality on the ground. These days, when it comes to Syria, Erdogan speaks about democracy and human rights, he (rightly so) asks Assad to step down and stop committing war crimes. However, how can we trust an Islamist who has been a keen supporter of war criminals?

A year ago, with direct knowledge of the government, Turkish military planes bombed and killed 34 Kurdish (Turkish) citizens from Roboski village, who were simply smuggling gas and cigarettes. It has been over 500 days since the incident and the Turkish government blocked any attempts for a criminal investigation. Currently, there are thousands of students, academics and journalists in Turkish prisons. In fact, Turkey has one of the worst human rights records within the developed world. Every time the opposition presses Erdogan’s government for justice, he effectively changes the public agenda by bringing forward issues such abortion or alcohol ban to further divide society, playing to his Islamist base. With his notorious temper, street charisma and machismo, he may be a popular figure on Arab street, but with his divisive right-wing agenda, he is far from a democratic leader who can promote peace or democracy in the region. While the Arab youth thinks highly of him, they forgot the fact that what they need is not another powerful patrimonial figure to replace their unfortunate dictators. When democracy is served only as an option for minorities, it presents itself as the dictatorship of the majority. This is now playing out in the streets of Turkey, which I will explore in my next post.

Sadly, if we can identify a common tread among societies in the Middle East, it’s the chronic hypocrisy inflicted by all governments, public recklessness and immunity. It is not Islam per se, but years of Middle Eastern-style patrimonial government that paralyzed societies. Not to mention that internal and foreign policy lacks any long-term strategic thinking. The possibility of dialogue and careful diplomacy is replaced with bullying; politics is understood as a pure power game where those in power have the right to absolute appropriation of commons, suffocating minorities and opposition.

Syria has become a sad corner of the world where there are no good fronts any more. Evil has consumed the territory. Cities are in ruin. Turkish support for Islamists in Syria created more bloodshed rather than providing a swift solution. While Turkey also pays a price for the long lasting civil war in Syria, Turkish foreign policy is sidelined in any decision-making process. The U.S. and EU do not want to step into to the hell— fearing that a western intervention would have larger consequences. In the mean time, as the war is escalating, it is pulling Turkey and Lebanon, two of neighboring countries, into regional abyss. Erdogan’s government will be remembered as one of the losers.

The really sad thing about Syria, whoever wins this war, is that they won’t have a country to celebrate.