A GENERAL PERSPECTIVE OF THE MIDDLE EAST (INTERVIEW WITH PROF. MELIHA ALTUNIŞIK – HEAD OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS DEPARTMENT OF METU),(MAY, 2007)

April 6th, 2016 | by dispolitika

Introduction and Question: Our topic now is the Middle East, a general perspective and perspectives for the near future. The speaker will be Prof. Meliha Altunışık. Head of the International Relations Department of the Middle East Technical University. My first question goes to her: There are quite a number of developments, some which are chronic and some of which flare up from time to time. I would like to refer basically to two questions. One of them is Iraq. Second is Lebanon

The Most Complex Problem – Iraq

MELİHA ALTUNIŞIK – Let us start with Iraq first. It is the most complex problem, I think, in the Middle East, albeit it is relatively new compared to, for instance, the Palestinian issue. In Iraq there are various issues and some of them are quite important for Turkey. Of course one issue is the issue of security. The security issue has not been resolved and it is going worse and worse. Related to that there is the issue of Shiite-Sunni conflict,, a civil war between the two sects which also is a detrimental factor in the regional politics as well, considering the relations between Shiites and Sunnis from different countries, particularly in the Gulf. There is the issue of political process and there are serious problems with that. What happens is that the whole political context is very much defined in terms of identities, religious identities and ethnic identities. So the political context was framed in that way. Therefore, politics is the politics of identities. This has been very detrimental. What happens is that all these communities are defining their interests in very exclusive terms and there is no win-win situation but there is zero sum game! My gain is the other’s loss. There is no ground for compromise. We have seen this in many issues, for instance the debate about federalism, the debate about Kirkuk issue, the faith of Kirkuk. The Kurds of Iraq have a very exclusivist position there. Similarly, we have seen this in the discussions of the Natural Resources Law. The communities there, unfortunately, because of how the politics are organized, they are adopting these very uncompromising positions. This is also very detrimental for Iraq and unfortunately there are not any external powers who could use their leverage to force them, force these communities to reach a compromise on the issues. When you look at the international community, the EU does not have any leverage on Iraq, the US is still the most important actor but it is not using the leverage that it has over the parties. So, in all these political issues we also have a deadlock. This is another problem. And in terms of the political process, there is the exclusion of the Sunnis from the political process and this is quite probable. There is the issue of what will happen to US presence. There is increasing expectation that the US is preparing to leave, at least parts of Iraq. Presidential election season is starting in the US. There are pressures on the US administration. We have seen what happened in the Congressional elections. Iraq was one of the issues. When US will withdraw and how it will withdraw, what will this mean in terms of security and stability in Iraq and the political situation in Iraq and even the territorial integrity of Iraq? These are all the questions out there. Similarly you have the problem of intervention of outside powers, particularly Iran has a tremendous influence in the Iraqi scene and this is creating further problems for Iraq. So the situation is very complex, still very volatile. It is hard for me to see that these conflicts will be resolved any time soon. I think, as Turkey we have to prepare ourselves to live with Iraq that is in turmoil in the coming decade or so. That is what we should expect.

Presence of PKK

Question – Of course, some of these developments in Iraq, particularly the presence of PKK in the Northern region and the possibility of the establishment of an independent Kurdish state with its implications on Turkey, Iran and partly Syria forces Turkey to adopt a certain political stand on the issue. What do you think will be the outcome? If these PKK attacks keep continuing on Turkey, could Turkey indefinitely stay put without doing anything to what is happening in Northern Iraq? What do you think?

MELİHA ALTUNIŞIK – You are very right. Actually there are problems for Turkey since 1991, these are not new and Turkey has been trying to deal with these problems by using different tools since 1991. Of course there is the presence of PKK and this gives PKK enormous powers, logistical power in terms of armaments and things like that and training. This has implications for Turkey. Plus the possibility of a Kurdish state is considered as a development that will have implications for Turkey. The attitudes of Kurdish leaders are problematic as well, particularly Barzani. I find it quite unhealthy that Barzani is trying to build a Kurdish nationalism based on Turkish hostility. He is making the Turks as the “other” in trying to build a Kurdish identity which is very dangerous. This may bring him points domestically and he is playing to his domestic audience as well vis-à-vis Talabani in trying to show himself more nationalistic, to oppose the Turks and Turkey, etc. But this is, in the long run, very detrimental for them as well. After all, we are neighbours and we have to learn to live with each other. I think this is not a wise policy. So, this policy also exacerbates the reactions in Turkey, particularly in a year like 2007 when the elections will be held. This affects nationalism in Turkey as well. So, it is not a wise policy on their side as well. Whether there can be a possibility of intervention? Even before this was not being discussed, I always thought that there could be a possibility. People talked about the EU impact and other things, economic consequences, etc. They are fine. But this issue is very important for Turkey as well. If the PKK attacks continue to accelerate, as particularly like the ones we had in Ankara, for instance, and we have learned that similar attacks were stopped in Istanbul and Adana, for instance, if these continue to accelerate there would be a lot of pressure on the policy makers as well to take drastic measures and so I would not rule out completely this possibility of such an intervention. Although what type of intervention is something that can change, some kind of intervention is a possibility, if these attacks continue. That would have negative consequences for Turkey as well, unfortunately. So, I hope that it would be avoided. But I think the US should see this and should effectively work on these issues. There is this perception in Turkey that somehow the US is not doing enough on these issues. It is not just for Turkey but for stability in this region, too, the US should use its leverage on the Kurdish groups as well and to take effective and real measures in dealing with these problems.

How to Balance Turkey’s Interests and Relations with Allies

Question – Well, of course, you are absolutely right. But what seems to happen is that, Mr. Barzani is being met in Washington in the White House as President of Kurdistan and all that, I believe that US has certain contribution to the creation of a so called Kurdistan concept. Also former British imperial policy of creating a Kurdish State in the region and European assistance to PKK, which is already documented, that casts Turkey in a very difficult position. On one side it has its own allies, on the other side its own interests. So, there is a conflict of interest arising. Wouldn’t you think that it may effect Turkey’s relations with the West in general, as well?

MELİHA ALTUNIŞIK – Definitely. Especially the issues related with Iraq and within that context the Kurdish issue has been affecting Turkey-US relations in particular, since 1991, not only today, despite the fact that in 1990’s we talked about a strategic partnership with the US. But Iraq issue is eroding Turkish-US relations, eroding the trust between the two longstanding allies, even then. This has accelerated in recent years. I believe that the US officials should understand that , why is there anti-Americanism in Turkey, what is happening in Turkey? This is the main reason. Iraq issue is the crux of the problem for Turkey and Turkey feels that the US does not think that way. Somehow, Iraqi Kurds, US’s allies now because it is the only stable region in Iraq and the US does not want to affect its relations with these groups but, never the less, Turkey is a very important country. And Turkey’s importance goes beyond the Middle East. It is not just the Middle East. I was just talking with some American experts the other day. They were asking me, what is this strategic significance of Turkey to the US? I said, I can tell you about the importance of Turkey. But Turkey has a strategic importance which goes beyond that region. We have to realize today that that there is some sole searching within the Muslim World. There is real competition for leadership. What direction the Muslim World should take? Iran clearly represents one model there. Look at Ahmedinejad. Iran today is no longer a Gulf power, also a Mediterranean power via Lebanon. We will talk about that country later. Iran is trying to be the leader of the Muslin World. Ahmedinejad talks in Indonesia, in Malaysia, talking in those terms, “we and them”. Turkey here represents something else. Turkey represents, “You can be Muslim but secular at the same time. You can be Muslim and democratic at the same time. You can be Muslim and be part of the Western institutions at the same time.” This is the most strategic thing you can get, in this day and age.

Secularity is the Key for Modernity

Question – We have shifted a little from Iraq. But it is very important. I think that there is a misconception that there can be a “mild Islam” in Turkey, that there can be a “mild Islam” in Jordan, there can be a “mild Islam” here and there. And it does not matter whether mild Islam produces anything for the people. But mild Islam and human rights, equality of genders, democracy and rule of law can only be achieved in an Islamic country if there is secularity. Secularism is the key for modernity, key for economic development, key to social development. I believe we have to explain a lot on this subject to our Western friends. Because they think that mild Islam is something that is granted because when one person is Moslem the whole national system is considered as a Moslem entity. However, this Moslem entity can be mild or violent. This Moslem entity cannot be a static entity but it may develop in mild or violent directions, The religion is personal affair in Turkey and that is the model. I think that model if it is thoroughly understood by our Western friends we may teach them something. Let us go back what you were saying about Lebanon and Syria. Of course, Syria is smarting because it was forced to get out of Lebanon and Syria is considered as an ally of Iran. They are both considered as rogue states by the US. But we are in the region. So what is our perception for Syria, Lebanon and to a certain extent for Iran?

How About Syria and Lebanon?

MELİHA ALTUNIŞIK – Well in terms of Syria, Turkey-Syrian relations have developed quite well, especially since 1998 when we had the crisis over the return Ocalan and then we signed the Adana Agreement, and after 2003 they got much better, I think Turkey basically argues that we have to engage Syria. I think that is a smart policy. It is a smart policy in the sense that this engagement by help in creating a rift in Syria Iranian alliance. This alliance is very detrimental for the region as a whole because of the crisis in Lebanon this alliance assumes a destructive importance. So if this Syrian,-Iranian alliance can be brought to an end this would also have repercussions for the Palestinian conflict and for Lebanon. I think Syria by trying to start the peace process with Israel etc. and by opening up to Turkey has given the signals that it is ready to cooperate. I think that is some thing that should be tried. The other thing is that in terms of Lebanon of course Syria feels cornered therefore tries to create difficulties for US in Iraq and Lebanon, and in that it cooperates with Iran. Both of these states are considered rogue states and are targeted accordingly. It is a classical power game. So I think there are possibilities for engaging Syria in regional politics, like in the case 1990s. In Lebanon of course there are various dynamics that are going on. Actually in the North, around Tripoli we have been noticing that there are some increasing Sunni radicalization for some time now. Generally when Lebanon is considered, there is a lot of emphasis on Hizbullah which is a Shiite radical movement. These last events are related to Sunni radicalization around Tripoli. There are also speculations about Syrian involvement and that may be the case. Because it makes sense in terms of balance of power in the region. There are various conflicts in Lebanon; some of them are of domestic nature that makes Lebanon a very interesting place. There is a contractual system but it is based on the balance of confessional percentages. Therefore, there is a constant struggle in Lebanon in terms of economic and political power sharing. All these groups are vying for the bigger part of the cake, if I may say so. In reality Lebanon has historically been an arena of competition among regional powers as well. So there are two levels of conflict and external powers have also tried to settle their accounts in Lebanon. The same thin g is also happening today. Your have on the one hand US and Israel and on the other Iran and Syria, are trying to settle their scores in Lebanon. Actually Lebanese actors are only a part of this struggle. Hizbullah’s struggle last summer was clearly in these terms, not just a war Lebanon but also one for the region for the direction the region would take: whether it would turn into a US made regional order or would it go the other way. And similarly where would Lebanon stand in this. Would Lebanon be in the US axis or in the Iran-Syria axis? Therefore Lebanon may be considered as laboratory of the region. Domestic issues may be easier to settle but unless the regional issues remain unsettled we will not have peace in Lebanon. In other words if you cannot break the alliance between Syria and Iran there will not no peace in Lebanon unless Arab-Israeli conflict especially between Syria and Israel are settled there will be no peace in Lebanon. This is why question of peace in Lebanon is quite complex and hard to achieve.

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