AKP’s moral-based policies on Syria not working, scholar says

AKP’s moral-based policies on Syria not working, scholar says

ISTANBUL- Hürriyet Daily News
AKP’s moral-based policies on Syria not working, scholar says

The open support in a covert warfare against the Syrian regime places Turkey in the camp of the Sunni powers, despite protestations from the government that its policies are ecumenical, Soli Özel tells the Daily News. DAILY NEWS photo, Emrah GÜREL

Turkey has lost its previous advantage of remaining above the fray of the Middle Eastern region’s sectarian divisions, scholar Soli Özel has said, noting that Turkey has become involved in a tug-of-war along sectarian lines as its foreign policy based on “moral principles” has been found wanting.

Foreign policy is not a morality play, Özel said of the government’s claim that it is acting morally when addressing criticisms of its Syrian policy.

“Blaming the critics for being amoral is immoral,” Özel told the Daily News in a recent interview.

Opinion leaders and journalists seem to be polarized over government policy on Syria; one group is lending its unconditional support, while the other is fiercely criticizing it. Where do you fall in this debate?

I refuse to speak in the terms defined by the government, whose policies are convoluted, in my view. Before this government discovered that [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad was an evil man, there were enough people in this country who expressed their views, saying that they had to stomach relations with Syria on the basis of Realpolitik but that they had moral pains in their stomach because it was a reprehensible regime.

So, anybody criticizing those who are critical of the government’s policies on the basis of their support for al-Assad are not telling the truth, and by trying to frame everything through a moralistic discourse, they are acting immorally themselves.

Bashar had to go, he must and will go. The question is not whether or not you are supporting al-Assad or not, but are you really managing your policies well under existing regional and global circumstances so that you attain that goal without much harm – not just to the Syrian people but also to your own national interest? On that, I am utterly unconvinced that the government has pursued the right policies.

Can you elaborate? What makes you say that?

We are currently the base for a covert war against the government of a neighboring country. The fact that the government of that country is illegitimate does not change the fact that we are what Honduras was to Nicaragua back in the 1980s. Iraq’s regime was illegitimate but we did not allow operational bases [to be established] on our territory to organize attacks against that government. In fact, we pride ourselves for not having collaborated with the U.S. in an open war against another illegitimate regime.

This blatant open support in a covert war against the Syrian regime places Turkey in the camp of the Sunni powers, despite protestations from the government that its policies are ecumenical. That the government is unable to convince - not just its own population but also anybody else around the world - that its policies are ecumenical must say something to us.

There is massive arms transfer through Turkey to the rebels in Syria. I am not questioning the legitimacy of the resistance to the Syrian regime. I am questioning the means, the quantity and the discourse that is being used in supporting that opposition.

The net result of Turkey’s policy is that we now have inimical relations with Iran, which is influential in Iraq, with whom we basically have no relations now. We don’t see eye to eye with Russia either.
It is a fact that the zero-problems principle in today’s circumstance gives us the picture of a country which has problems with all of its eastern and southern neighbors. I am not going pan this.

I don’t think this was Turkey’s fault, or the fault of the principle. It stems from an inability to adjust Turkey’s policy to a tempestuous environment in which history is being reshaped. Our foreign minister can understand the historical significance of this transformation very well, but cannot adjust Turkey’s policies in a way that would limit the dangers that will ensue because of what is going on. That’s the problem.

When we are asked whether we should continue to shake hands with a bloody dictator, I’d like to remind everyone that the bloody dictator was a bloody dictator before, too – he just killed fewer people from then until March 2011. There must be a grey area, between having private dinners with a bloody dictator and cutting off all relations with that regime. Turkey has become a less influential actor than it could have been otherwise.

When answering critics, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu says Turkey would not have been able to go out onto the Arab streets had it not chosen to be on the side of the people.

Which Arab streets? Which people? Are Christians, Syriacs, Nusayris and secular Sunnis necessarily enamored of Turkey’s policies? Every report I read suggests the people of Aleppo are very unhappy with the presence of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). But the FSA finds weapons that are provided by Qataris and Saudis that go through Turkish borders.

That Turkey is now being seen as an inimical power by the Shiites in the region is a failure on the part of Turkish diplomacy. Remember that a Turkish citizen is being held by a Shiite tribe in Lebanon that says if it doesn’t get what it wants it will kill him to punish Turkey. Is this the image we wanted to project to the rest of the world?

Was it not Turkey’s claim that its foreign policy was successful because it was equidistant to every group? When you look now, we are unable to speak to any of our neighbors.

But you said yourself that circumstances changed and that this is not necessarily Turkey’s fault.

When your principle for one reason or another could no longer be upheld, you had to devise your policies in a way that when you are single-handedly pursuing the ouster of Bashar you manage to maintain normal relations with the rest of your neighbors; that we failed to do. It is obvious that [Turkish officials] overestimated their influence over the Syrian regime, which should lead us to question the wisdom of the policies they have pursued over the past eight years. Then, they took a very strong position against the regime, supporting a covert war from Turkish territory, putting into peril Turkish territory, especially the border areas which have very mixed views on what’s right and wrong.

But the government asks its critics, “What should we have done? Sit and watch Bashar kill his own people?”

Foreign policy is not a morality play. To now turn it into a morality play and blame the critics for being amoral is immoral itself. I think Bashar has to go and he will go, but at what cost? At what cost to the Syrian people? One can also say, if you are so moral, why don’t you intervene militarily yourself rather than waiting for the international community to give you the permission. Even then, you are not willing to do it on your own.

Turkish authorities say consistently that their allies have supported them on [possible] action, but that when push comes to shove they all disappear. This gives us the clue as to where the miscalculation was committed.

At one point, Turks believed there would be a military intervention by the West. But anybody who looked at the Libya experience would have known there was no way anybody would intervene military in Syria. To claim that we have been misled does not look good on Turkish diplomacy in terms of its capacity for foresight.

When you start sending weapons to rebels and you are doing this for the best moral reasons, you create a situation where you prolong the fight.

If the opposition had not been armed, unilateral killings by Bashar would have continued. What other options were available to the government, which has criticized its critics for not siding with morality?

Because the government could not really explain to the public what the national interest argument in all of this was, it has consistently relied on the moral argument. The moral argument can only be a part of foreign policy and not the essence of it. Syria is very important because the turmoil in Syria will affect Turkey’s domestic stability, if for nothing else by virtue of the incredible instability it will generate – and has already done so – in the region. The domestic Syrian problem of rebelling against a bloody dictator has turned into a regional tug of war between regional powers and outside powers, and that tug of war is conducted along sectarian lines.

Turkey now finds itself in a geopolitical contest that is being defined in sectarian terms. The advantage that Turkey had prior to the Syrian crisis was that Turkey was not part of the sectarian divisions in the region. This is the outcome of 1.5 years of policy, and that outcome does not strike me as a brilliant success. As to what could have been done otherwise, I wish my government would tell me exactly how they define our national interests - not on moral terms - and also why they have accused everyone who supported Bashar for doing so for sectarian reason, therefore bringing Syrian sectarian divisions and then Lebanon sectarian divisions and Iraqi sectarian divisions into our country as well.

What motivates them?

The Sunnis are going to come to power; among the Sunnis the Muslim Brotherhood will be the more prevalent force. Together with Tunisia and Egypt, there will be kindred governments all around us except in Iraq. I know they protest when they are blamed for sectarian policies, but this is how their policies are read elsewhere.

Foreign policy cannot be based on either ideological or sectarian motivation; if it is, then you are liable to make mistakes.

What will be the consequences of the Syrian crisis on the Kurdish issue?

It emboldens the PKK [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party]. What is going on in historical terms is the dismantling of a regional order that was created upon the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, mainly by the British along with the French.

That order was predicated upon the unquestioned supremacy of Sunni Arabs. What we see is the crumbling of this order and creation of a new one. In historical terms, the arrangement of 1918-1922 [did not give] the Kurds as a very large group their right to self-determination. This time around, it seems the Kurds are going to be the winners as a new order is being shaped. If there are about 30 millions Kurds living in four countries in an age of rejuvenated nationalism everywhere, this is a political consequence of the dissolution of the regional order.

The government’s greatest asset was to see what was going on as it deserved to be seen; that is, in historical terms. They have not given credence to conspiracy theories. The irony is that if you look at it from historical terms, the fact that Kurds also now have their say over their destiny is also part of the historical process. It shows also how mistaken Turkey, including this government, was in not having solved its own Kurdish issue and totally marginalizing the PKK. Even if the Kurdish issue is solved, the PKK may still continue its acts of violence, which is what it feeds on.

When you have your own sectarian and ethnic fault lines to consider, this government should have been more careful - both in its discourse and in its policies.

Who is Soli Özel?

Soli Özel is a columnist for daily Habertürk, where he is also the foreign news editor.

He is currently part of the academic staff at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.

He received his master’s degree specializing in the Middle East from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He has had numerous articles published in foreign newspapers and academic journals. He recently co-authored “Turkey: Model, order-setter or trade partner,” which was published by both Istituto Affairi Internazionali and the German Marshall Fund.

His article “Turkey in the face of Eurosclerosis” for the German Marshall Fund will be published next month.