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Assad bound to go, says former Turkish diplomat

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News | 6/24/2011 12:00:00 AM | BARÇIN YİNANÇ

The genie is out of the bottle in Syria, says former diplomat Özdem Sanberk. ‘President Bashar al-Assad is bound to go, maybe in a month or maybe in a year. We just can’t predict the time,’ he says, but adds that as it is not clear who will replace him, as supporting the Syrian opposition will be a shot in the dark. ‘Foreign policy is actually the management of contradictions. Turkey is following a cautious policy, it is looking for a soft landing’

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is doomed to go following months of unrest in Turkey’s Arab neighbor, according to Özdem Sanberk, a former Turkish diplomat.

Although the change is irreversible, the Middle East is at the beginning of a period of uncertainty and there could be a return to strongman regimes, Sanberk recently told the Hürriyet Daily News in an interview.

Q: Does the Arab Spring mean the failure of Turkey’s policies with Arab countries?

A: Turkey has improved its relations with the current regimes. And Turkey seems to be in a contradictory position just like any other country, like France, for instance. It has not broken its ties with the current regimes but it also knows it should not stay against the tide of history. Foreign policy is actually the management of contradictions.

The Arab world is at the beginning of a period of uncertainty and instability. It is very difficult to pass to multi-party regimes in these countries. There is the possibility for the Islamic movements to strengthen. Most probably there will be a return to strongman regimes following a period of ups and downs.

But change is irreversible. The period when these regimes take their last breath is painful. In this respect, the first priority is security. A mass exodus to Turkey from Syria might bring the option of creating a buffer zone in the region. But right now it is still too early to talk about it. The second priority is to address the human dimension and the third is to avoid a spill over [leading] to a bigger crisis in the region.

Turkey is moving with caution. There cannot be one single template to apply to all the countries in the Middle East.

Q: So you share Turkey’s case-by-case approach – which has been criticized by man who argue that Turkey’s policy should be to side with democracy and human rights.

A: I agree with the case-by-case approach because the one suggested by the critics does not suit reality. On the contrary, it can backfire on you.

Q: How do you see the situation in Syria?

A: In Syria I believe the genie is out of the bottle. The regime is trying to buy time. But it is not realistic to expect a transition to a multi-party regime. It is going to be hard for the regime to survive. It will be difficult for [President] Bashar al-Assad to continue to stay on power. He will leave, maybe in a month or maybe in a year. We just can’t predict when the time will be.

Q: But Ankara still seems to continue to give him a chance.

A: It will be wrong to follow a policy to keep al-Assad in power. And I don’t think Turkey is doing that. But you just can’t throw him into the trash, as if he were paper. Turkey is following a policy so that the demise of the regime creates a risk neither to the Syrian people nor to the security of Turkey. In a way, Turkey is looking for a soft landing.

Q: If sooner or later al-Assad will go, should Turkey encourage a faster exit?

A: This will increase the tension. It is not clear what will replace him. Iran needs to be counted in on that equation. Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition could lead Iranian hostility toward Turkey. Supporting the Syrian opposition would be a shot in the dark.

Q: So in a way, Turkey will be doing crisis management.

A: Yes. The main principles of Turkey’s policies in the region will be maintained but there will be adjustments to new realities.

One of the most important characteristics of the recent foreign policy is that we started to give importance to Islamic solidarity. Islamic solidarity is playing a role as a tool of action. But this is not happening for the first time. Islam became a variable of foreign policy in the 1970s when we entered the Organization of Islamic Conference. When there is Islamic solidarity as a variable, that adds an ideological color to Turkey’s policy.

But strategic and economic interests ought to determine foreign policy. There is currently the impression that ideology determines foreign policy. This is both right and wrong. It is right, because Islamic solidarity plays a role on decision making. But it is wrong because the fact that Islamic solidarity plays a role in the foreign policy does not mean other variables are not being used.

Q: Talking about ideology, we can’t avoid talking about Israel.

A: This is about the management of contradictions. If you can’t manage contradictions, then your policies can hit the wall. Israel should be criticized when it deserves criticism. But right now there is a deep crisis between Turkey and Israel that needs to be overcome. Relations are at breaking point. If we can’t solve the problem, rigid building blocks will be built one on top of the other and Turkey will lose its regional influence.

Turkey had become influential with the Arab world prior to 2002 [when the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came to power] when Arabs became convinced of our potential influence over Israel.

Q: But the opposite could be argued as well. Some would argue that Turkey’s influence increased especially on the Arab streets in parallel to the deterioration of relations with Israel.

A: This argument could have a basis, as the streets of the Arab world have become important. But will those on the Arab street come to government? As I said before, I think there might be a return to the strongman rule in the region, which means the views on the street might not be taken into account.

Q: Right now, there are signs that the ice could melt down between the two countries.

A: It has become clear that [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s administration will be at the helm. Israel sees this. There is a great turbulence in the region. The fact the two stable countries in the region are at odds with each other is to the benefit of neither these two countries not the region.

Q: Mavi Marmara [where nine Turkish citizens were killed last year when it took part in the Gaza bound flotilla] will not go to Gaza. Wasn’t that the main icebreaker?

A: Erdoğan’s election victory played a much more important role than the decision about the Mavi Marmara.

The argument that Mavi Marmara could not go due to technical reasons does not seem to be convincing. There is the impression that the decision came as a result of government pressure.

At the end of the day, the Mavi Marmara is not going, whether because of government pressure or not. I would not know that. But this cannot make us forget that Israel has killed nine Turkish citizens. We are still expecting Israel to accept their operational mistake.

Q: Where are we on the working of the United Nation commission [that was established to investigate Israel’s attack]?

A: There will be suspense at the very last minute. The U.N. will never pinpoint one side. Independent of whatever the commission recommends, relations will not become normalized unless Israel agrees to provide an apology and compensation.

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