DIPLOMATIC DISCUSSION GROUP MEETING October 17, 2012 “The War in Syria – its impact on the future of the Middle East”


Turkish Foreign Policy Institute organized a Diplomatic Discussion Group meeting on October 17, 2012 to debate “The War in Syria – its impact on the future of the Middle East”.

Seyfi Taşhan

We have been organizing these Diplomatic Discussion Group meetings for the past 20 years to enlighten the foreign diplomats in Ankara of tyhe positions taken by Turkey at international events andhow they are evaluated from the Turkish perspective. For the past few months developments in Syria have been of grave concern for us and we want to discuss how it has affected Turkish foreign policy. On similar occasions we have invited Professor Meliha Altunışık of METU and journalist friend Semih İdiz of the daily Milliyet to comment to us on the latest events and how they see the future, how they feel the Middle East where it will go. As the international conditions and the Middle East keep changing, from time to time we have to visit the Middle East. So, first speaker for this afternoon is Professor Meliha Aktunışık who has written extensively on the developments in the region, most of you know her already.

Proffesor Meliha Altunışık

Thank you very much Mr. Taşhan. I am happy to be here. Last time it was almost a year ago, right? We were again discussing Turkish foreign policy within the context of the Arab Spring. In one way lots have changed since then, but in another way not much has changed. There are still important challenges to the region and to the Turkish foreign policy as well.

Challanges of Arab Spring for Turkish foreign policy

Let me start by saying that I don’t have magical analysis on what is going on in terms of Turkish Foreign Policy I am trying to understand actually, as other scholars do, the evolution of Turkish foreign policy and I will share with you some of my thinking on this topic with particular focus as you can imagine on the Syrian Crisis and Turkish foreign policy. As you all know the Arab Uprising put Turkey’s new Middle East Policy of the current AKP government was implementing into a test. In fact what we have seen since the beginning of the Arab Uprising is that Turkey has difficulty developing a long term policy and strategy to deal with the Arab Uprising. This is very suprising because right after the beginning of the uprising and because of previous Turkish engagements with the region, the expectation in Turkey and elsewhere was that Turkey is very well placed to turn this into something that benefits Turkish regional power status. The fact that Turkey was not able to effectively turn this into its benefit is of course interesting and in fact when you look at the Turkish foreign policy since the beginning of the Arab Uprising there has been some attemps to develop consistent elements of new policy in response to what is happening in the region but also there were ups and downs in terms of Turkish response.

Turkish Support for the Arab Spring is a Constant

I think Turkey is the most consistent from the very beginning to support the uprising. I mean even when you can find some initial hesitancy particularly in the case of Libya, overall we can say that this has become a consistent of the Turkish Foreign Policy response to the Arab Uprising. The second element that has been more or less consistent within the context, I will say, is Turkey’s attempt to act in coalitions engaging in post Arab Spring in Middle East and here Turkish traditional coalition partners have been important, like US, because one of the consequences of the Arab Spring has been improvement of relations between US and Turkey. The two countries had problems right before the Arab Uprising. Relations even with the EU and some EU countries like Great Britain, like France, even under Sarkozy there were more cooperation. Look at France, they had many meeting on Syria. Also Turkey tried to have coalitions in the Arab world and here realitons with Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been particularly important but also with Egypt. This has been a consistent future I would say of the new policy as well. But beyond that there has been important changes in Turkey’s responses to the Arab Spring. For instance, initially there was a lot of emphasis on what is called peaceful transtions. I mean Turkey emphasizes peaceful transiion to prevent instability and Turkey was openly against external intervention, that there should not be external intervention in the Arab Uprising countries.

Emphasis to object external intervention changes with Syria

This position was changed in the case of Syria. Turning point was the living crisis. In the Syrian crisis there has been a clear position of the Turkish Govenment in support of some kind of intervention. In fact the Syrian Crisis has been the most complicated challenge to the Arab Spring and also to Turkish foreign policy, because it has been a challenge to the Arab Spring, because it changed the context of the Arab Spring.

Syrian Crisis changes the context of Arab Spring

You may say that Bahrain is also important in that respect but in Syria it became very clear because of domestic division in Syria both political and social division and as well as because of the presence of significant external support to the regime, the Syrian Crisis changed the context of the Arab Spring. And the regime has been succesful to frame the Syrian Crisis as a Civil War between two sides rather than the continuation of the Arab Uprising and even to a certain extent a conflict between Turkey and Syria and Qatar and Saudi Arabia, so I think the regime has been succesfully defining this change of context in Syria. What about Turkey’s response? I would say that Turkey’s response has been a major shift in Turkish foreign policy and even in AKP Government foreign policy. I mean this is expected, of course, circle, importance of Syria to Turkish foreign policy. It is a direct neighbor, a neighboring country with almost a thousand miles border. This partly explains the reason for our engagement. Morever, Syria had become a corner stone of AKP’s Middle East policy and it was a very important partner. So, I mean, it was expected that when the uprising started in Syria this would be different for Turkey. But this only partly explains the shifting in Turkish foreign policy.

Call for Regime Change and Support for Opposition

When you look at it, Turkey has been calling openly for a regime change. It has been actively supporting the opposition, particularly Syrian National Council, Turkey gave logistical support to the Free Syrian Army, talked about humanitarian coridors, buffer zones etc. This is quiet new in Turkish foreign policy, when you look at it traditionally. When you look at AKP foreign policy for intance, compare AKP’s response to 2003 Iraq War and how they were critical of the Bush Administration policy at that time which was calling for regime change, which was calling for humanitarian asistance and supporting the opposition, etc. This is really a major shift.

Lack of Public Support

What makes it all interesting is absence of a public support for such a policy. Because we have had several public opinion polls both by the Turkish think-thanks and international think-thanks. All show that there is no support for AKP’s Syrian policy. Generally, it is found that the support is about %30, which means that even an important group among AKP supporters do not support AKP’s Syria policy. Also you can tell not only in terms of lacking public support but many look at opinion makers that are close to the AKP Government usually you find them increasing critical of the Syrian Policy and AKP is a party from the beginning that has been very sensetive to public opinion polls. I mean it is said that they have regular public opinion polls to really shape their policy. It is really interesting that such a party is not really very responsive in this case to public opinion. This requires an explanation. We, as academics, would like to look at everything and examine them. But I would try to sort of come up with several explanations. Probably all of this have something to do with AKP policy. Of course one explanation which is generally experienced is miscalculation that after taking time in responding to Arab Uprising, particularly isolation in Libya the government did not want to wait this time and basicly expected a similar form of regime change in a short time. Of course related to that sort of argument that once you get in it is hard to get out of it once you have taken a very clear position initially like that.

Frustration with Lack of Reforms

There are second group of explanations, which point to personal reasons, particularly disappointment of Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu despite all their arguments for years of the importance of engagement with Syria. And therefore having a leverage on Syria they failed to convince Bashar regime to change course, to initiate reforms. Davutoğlu himself said that initially we try to convice Bashar regime that they should start reforming and Davutoğlu personally said Esad “if you do that you will be a hero, that you should start reforming.” But they found out that they did not have that leverage over the Bashar regime. After all that was personal frustration, I would say for the AKP Government.

Protecting Turkish Interests in the Region

Our third group explanation is related to interest, I mean, Turkey wants to protect its interests, Syria is important, it is important because of the possible implications for the Kurdish Issue, because it is a neighbor, it is important to act in such a crisis to protect Turkish regional power status. And this is to be able to shape the future events. I think here the lessons of the Iraq War were important because after taking the decision not to get involved in the Iraq War, Turkey was cut for a long time from Iraq and did not have much influance in Iraq, did not have any contacts with the opposition that came to power. So you may argue that in order to be able to continue its status as a regional power and also to be able to contuine to use Turkey’s relations with Middle East as an asset in its relations with the US and extend to the EU, Turkey wanted to be engaged from the beginning. I mean, Davutoğlu himself said “Turkey wants to live the movement of change, we want to be the owner, leader, servant of this change” and clearly Syria was seen as providing challenges but also the oppurtunity for Turkey to protect its interests both in Syria and beyond.

Moral Approach to the Crisis

The final group of explanation is one that generally Foreign Minister uses this, which I call, idealization of factors, references to ethics and morality and the fact that people are dying in Syria and this is how Foreign Minister responds to the criticsims; “what should we do?” Catastrophe that is happening, so we should do something about it. And in fact within this context, there is this argument, debating Turkey’s attention between values and interest but the problem of this kind of explanation is that it is not clear whether the policy that Turkey has been persuading is upholding values and interests. There are significant challenges to both of this positions as you probably know in terms of values. OK these are important but at the same time critics point to other examples of AKP foreign policy that do not necessarly take values into consideration, particularly. the Sudan policy. And in the context of the Arab Uprising, Turkey’s less interest in Bahrein Uprising and how it was crashed by Saudi Arabia?

Complexity of the Crisis

In terms of interest again there can be arguments that can be put forward because clearly lots of that is happening against Turkey’s interests, at least in the short run the PKK Issue,chaos and the civil war in Syria, economic interests are hurt, so there are issues of stability and security threats and economic challenges as well. And furthermore, as I said, it goes against the domestic interests argument because at least there is no public support. On this complexity, I think the fact that there are no clear interests argument, this has led to ups and downs in Turkish foreign policy between different responses and I would say that just before the mortar attack at Akçakale forces there were signs that AKP was trying to downplay the Syrian Crisis to some extent because of mounting criticisims, for instance, they asked the Free Syrian Army Headquarters to leave Turkey which was a major criticism before. But then of course right after that there has been an escalation. It is hard to know what does this mean, is it because there is an escalation because some how this is out of control of Turkey and Turkey has been draged back into this again or is this di-escalation is due to the realisation that continuation of this conflict as such will be more detrimental for Turkey’s interests. So, therefore, by di-escalation Turkey hopes to end this crisis and there could be more cooporation with allies and there are signs of that as well.

Transition of the Regime from Within

Of course it is not clear, this may mean to resolve this issue through some kind of maybe use of limited military force or is it transition within the regime, convincing the leaders to leave but then keeping most of the state intact with additional new members from the opposition. This is the scenario that is most attractive but clearly most difficult to achieve and when you look at the transition literature, I mean this is how more peaceful transitions are achieved, than somehow a group from the regime decides that it is in their interest to change side and to be part of the transition. We will see whether this scenario could be implemented but clearly, especially the Syrian crisis is very critical for Turkey’s future role because for Turkey’s status in the Middle East it is essential for its interest. This has been the cornerstone of AKP’s Policy because inter-ethnic and inter-secterial conflict in Syria and beyond have consequences for Turkey and we have already seen these consequences. This could be distabilising for Turkey as well. Plus for Turkey’s policy of expending economical relations with the region which again has been a corner stone of AKP’s policy due to also domestic reasons because that stability in the region is very important so therefore what happens in Syria whether and if this transtion occurs and how this transition occurs will be crucial for Turkey’s role.

Seyfi Taşhan

May I ask Mr. Semih İdiz, columnist in the daily Milliyet to comment on how he sees the developments in our immediate neighborhood.

Semih İdiz

Let me start by mentioning what Donald Rumsfeld said that we are going through a process where Turkey is basically learning what it is and what it isn’t. It is more than what something it is but it is less than what others think it is and yet it is something because it has gained a critical mass to extend. It is very much in the international eye and what happens in Turkey on a number of levels is attractive increasing attention. Of course there is economic side of it which is very important and increases the critical mass aspect but the political dimension is once again proving to be what we always know about Turkey mainly that Turkey is in a strategic place geographically. This probably goes back in history and again it is in the middle of events that are of global proportions or of global implications but they all are around its own geography. Thankfully now the Balkans and Caucasus are relatively stable but the Middle East has irrupted in a way that was really not foreseen as a factor by Turkey or this government at all. Traditionally Turkey has distanced itself when it has looked to the Middle East and this has been the subject of criticism among this because it was assumed that was because Turkey was rejecting the Islamic World. But it is more because it has been cautious. Actually Turkey has been more oriented towards the West, looking in that direction. When you see the events that is unfolding now and when you consider that it is not clear when all this is going to settle, you tend to understand why especially during the Republican times the diplomacy in the Middle East was put on the backburner. Because once you touch on things relating to the region, you touch on such sensetive areas that Turkey is bound to be influenced by these for one or another reason,because while many Turks somehow don’t consider this fact,but we too have an imperial baggage that has its reflection in the Middle East, apart from the Balkans or whatever.

Expectations from Imperial Baggage

Of course our Prime Minister based on this imperial baggages tried to convert this into a positive thing. Davutoğlu came out with a policy that was actually in coordination with the Prime Minister . We must not think that this is purely Davutoğlu’s line of thought. That highlighted the facts that Turkey’s past gave it some kind of a special role in the Middle East in terms of guiding, stabilising, mediating and other positive factors like this. Nothing was really wrong in all this, except that it didn’t really fit into with the reality that existing in the region. The number one factor that was not helpful was this notion that the region was not really prepared for some kind of paternalistic Turkey with imperial background trying to direct the region.Never the less, what did make Turkey attractive despite this almost rejecting position was the fact that an Islamic government was on the rise in Turkey and this was an Islamıc government that was appearing from the Arab side to be dismantling the institutions of secularism which were considered to be anti-religion in the Middle East. There was an ambivalence while this approach about references to the past and the Ottoman period, all these are not going down very well, especially when its started becoming subject of international media with talk about neo-ottomanism. On the other hand, there was an interest and in fact that Islamic government was operating in a democratic enviroment and flexing its muscles in a way against the established order in Turkey, in ways that have not been seen before. This approach was to create a sympathy for itself in the region. The streets were very much proud ofErdoğan and Turkey was looked on by the masses as possibly the new light of the Islamic world.

Arab Spring Upsets Expectations

Except that the Arab Spring exploded in a such a way that upset for everthing in the end because the real Middle East, the true dynamics of the Middle East was really starting to emerge. Now what we are facing today is the product of these dynamics. One thing we can say about our foreign policy is, it might be a change over the past two years, in particular that we have moved from proactive situation. Turkey was in the role of leader, of mediator, stabiliser and now Turkey is not leading anything in the Middle East but trying to protect the fall out. Coming back to the critical mass factor, as I said before, Turkey obviously, undoubtly gained this critical mass but appears not to know how to use this in a way that can be beneficial.

Back to Traditional Allies

Not only does this government perhaps not know how to manage this critical mass but it is also ending up in the ironic situation that having opened up to the Islamic World after coming to power in a way that many people interpreted as an Islamization of Turkey, even though they rejected it, now it is being forced back to the traditional corner of acting together with the traditional allies, especially along military matters but not only acting along with these traditional allies, the most traditional being America of course, rather than Europe, but also being somehow dependent on the support that they can get from these countries. When you look at this from the perspective of its leadership role in the Islamıc world, this has been questioned on a number of levels especially by the elites in the Arab world. I must say that pleased us, we were for the Arabs calling for democracy. The sociological reality of these countries should have told us that ultimately the elites will somehow retain the situation even if they transform from one kind of elite to another. We have elites in Iran, Iraq and so forth, who are running those countries and of course elite which is frightened for itself in Syria but it is, never the less, still there, it is still a member of the United Nations. These elites are now hostile towards Turkey and people that they represent along sectarian lies are also gradually becoming hostile towards Turkey.

Secterian Influences

Because what has happened in the further stage of islamization of foreign policy is that it has been sectarianized. You do see very tangible preferences along sectarian lines, in who Turkey likes the most, who the government likes to be supporting and this was very apparent in AKP’s Congress just a few weeks ago. AKP has been trying to play to this world but conditions have made it such that it is reconsidering policies that the reality of the world are emposing, forcing them into traditional realliances in terms of military and security issues.

Syria – from examplary relations to frustration

Syria is the number one issue now and poses a major dilemma for Turkey because this is where their act hit the rock bottom. Turkey started in terms of these great expectations on the part of the government opening up to the Middle East and the Islamıc World. What perhaps makes the government nervous most and hurts more is the fact that they used Syria as the prime example how they were approaching to this world. Two years ago when Erdoğan and Mr Esad were so close that they were enjoying friendship, enjoying holidays in Bodrum together, they were getting together along family lines. And Erdoğan was doing this almost as if he was defying the West which did not like this and was saying “what are you doing with these people?” He used to reply that “this is not islamization, we are opening up to our neighborhood, increasing our options”. From that position having to come to this position, that is an incredible turn about 180 degrees. That in itself shows whatever was invested in Syria politicly by this government went to waste. Not only went to waste but now it has opened up a mess because the expectation was so wrong. The expectation as we said was very simple, like Mubarek, like Kaddafi, Esad also has to go. He will go, then Turkey being the friendly soft power in the region with the historicial ties, the political and economic benefits which had already started coming anyway because visa restrictions had been lifted, there was a lot of interaction between people coming like shopers to Gaziantep. Those expectations really were exagarated because despite the claim to know the region, because of our imperial past nobody ever thought about the very complicated sociological set up of Syria. I only know of this because there used to be a Dutch Ambassador in Ankara called Nicolaos Van Dam who had written his doctoral thesis on Syria and I translated this into Turkish. I think it is still being sold and it was only then I realized how deep the sectarian and regional and tribal divisions in this country were. Artificial as it may be, as a set up that emerge if you pull one thing out it was bound to create somekind of ripples across the Middle East in a way that neither Egypt nor Tunisia nor Libya could make. The sitıuation as it has emerged now, not just in terms of the Sunni and Shia, Alawi divide but also in terms of Christian and Muslim secular people, religious people divide. Especially all of these are now in a state of combat in Syria. It is not clear what is going to emerge out of this, what is not going to emerge clearly at this stageies may be what our government initially wanted, which was a democratic transition, elections, parlamentary system and all that. Those expectations have now been transformed into what our President calls “worst case senario expectation”. So we are in fact waiting the worst from Syria at the moment in term of refugees, PKK and Kurdish fall out in terms of sectarian divisions. We have had sensetive moments in recent Turkish history along sectarian lines. Considering this negative situation emerging I think the inner Turkish instinct of the government has now started kicking in slowly.

Putting on the Breaks

Because we see rolling back some of there inital positions and putting on the break. We see this in terms of being much more carefull about admitting refugees. For example I think it was three days ago that one of the leaders of the international refugee agency was accusing Turkey of violating human rights because it was not allowing ten thousand refugees piling at its door. Secondly, they are going around the country and picking up the Syrians and telling them number one item to register, make it clear where they are living and who they were with or move to the camps. Thirdly, who is coming in and out of Turkey and going into Syria because clearly jihad is using this as a means for their international jihad and this has been disturbing especially for the people of Hatay province. Hatay province in Turkey is not only multi-ethnic in Turkey but it has always traditionally been one of the more cosmopolitian and tolerant part of Turkey and anybody who has been in Antakya or around they probably know this. You know the local social implications of the Syrian situation has made the government think twice and put on the breaks.

Transition from Within

Now Turkey is playing with the idea of perhaps somebody from the regime can be the transtion person. Six, seven mounths ago this was out of question. You did not talk to this regime, it was bad regime it was killing its people. Now the notion of talking transitional acceptable name has emerged. By accepting Mr Farouk Al Shaara as a possible transitional figure Turkey has already taken diplomatic step back significantly. Secondly, we had I think it was yesterday coming out of Baku, where it is all over the papers in the words of our Prime Minister, we recommended a triple mechanism: Turkey, Russia and Iran to deal with the Syrian Crysis. I doubt very much that Turkey has decided to put forward this idea because this idea has been floating around as soon as Russia pulled out of the official contact group on Syria. But, never the less, our Prime Minister is pronouncing establisment of triple mechanism. He is completly backing from earlier position Syria goes to show that Turkey is now trying to find a way out of the situation as its position which way in accordance with its initial calculations.

External Interferance – Sensitive Issue for Turkey

Turkey is the one country in the world, Mr Tashan confirmed, the state has been religiously concerned about national sovereignty and against external interference and whatever it has been Turkey now has taken a different line. We are talking about regime changing in another country, we are talking about arming what other people might call terorist groups or whatever and this is an irony that has been played on very much in Turkey by the opposition, by people, myself included, because it has to be highlighted. The government has one out of every two votes. But sooner or later, I think, if the situation turns into a hot confrontation situation over Syria that goes out of hand and we start getting body bags from Syria, not just from the PKK situation, then I can see a certain situation emerging where Mr Davutoğlu becomes an obstacle for Mr Erdoğan, at a time when he is trying to direct the country in terms of a grand vision toward 2023.dissgroup