Turkish ‘hakawati’ in the Levant
In the old town of Damascus there are coffee shops where men gather over coffee, cigarettes and shisha. One feature that those coffee shops boast is the old tradition of storytelling, or “hakawati,” which may or may not be still alive. If it is, some stories may well be describing the amazing journey that the Crescent and Star has made over the last decade and a half, on a flying carpet over the skies of Syria.
In 1998, Turkey was contemplating war with Syria over the latter’s support for separatist Kurdish militants. A decade later, when Americans tagged Syria as a rogue and terrorist state, Turkey became its strategic ally (and the first NATO country to conduct military exercises with it). Ironically, the Americans and the Turks are today forced to think that they must fight one of the Syrian regime’s most dangerous foes.
“You can’t make war in the Middle East without Egypt and you can’t make peace without Syria,” Henry Kissinger once said. Turkey’s foreign policy calculus has invalidated Mr. Kissinger’s famous remark, as Ankara has tried war and peace with both Egypt and Syria – still no sign of peace in the Middle East.
The road to peace is as distant as it always was. Turkey’s leaders think this is exclusively because of Israel. I think Turkey’s top Muslim cleric has a more realistic explanation. “A thousand Muslims are being killed each day, and 90 percent are killed by other Muslims,” Professor Mehmet Görmez said in a recent speech.
It dates back to 14 centuries ago when a schism was started by rival clans in the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh - a feud that would survive beyond their imagination.
The sectarian blindness explains a lot of complexities: Why, for instance, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia fiercely supported the Syrian opposition, or sent troops across the border into neighboring Bahrain to help stamp out a Shia uprising there. The hatred explains why the Shia and Sunnis in Iraq kill each other by the thousands every month and bomb each other’s mosques.
The Wahhabis are virulently anti-Shia, and vice versa. They view the Shia as satanic “rejectionists.” And for their part the Shia view them as simply “perverted.” For each sect the other is “not even Muslim.” Saudi schools teach pupils that Shiism is simply a Jewish heresy.
In 2006, senior Wahhabi cleric Abdul Rahman al-Barrak released a fatwa stating that the Shia are “infidels, apostates and hypocrites ... [and] they are more dangerous than Jews or Christians.”
Al-Qaeda’s younger twin, al-Nusra, declared in 2012: “The blessed operations will continue until the land of Syria is purified from the filth of the Nusayris [Syrian Alawites] and the Sunnis are relieved of their oppression.”
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is Turkey’s own Frankenstein story. When on June 11 Frankenstein knocked on its old master’s door, it was too late: 49 hostages are still in captivity.
Now, world politics has tasked Turkish and American strategists to fight Frankenstein.
Only a day before the attack on the Turkish consulate in Mosul, an opposition parliamentarian warned that the consulate was exposed to the risk of an attack from ISIS, to which the government benches replied loudly: “Stop telling lies!” Only 20 hours before the Turkish consulate was attacked, then Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, now prime minister, tweeted that “We have taken all precautions at the Mosul consulate general.”
More than two years ago Mr. Davutoğlu prophesized that al-Assad’s days in power were numbered. In a span of weeks, he predicted, the “butcher of Damascus would go.”
But there is another man who can compete with Mr. Davutoğlu in any “Realistic Guesses on the Future of the Middle East” competition. At the end of 2011 when the last US troops left Iraq, President Barack Obama described Iraq as “sovereign, stable and self-reliant.”
Frankenstein and the “butcher” must be laughing.