Syria policy a ‘source of many sufferings’ for Turkey

Syria policy a ‘source of many sufferings’ for Turkey

Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş on Aug. 17 described Ankara’s Syria policy as “a source of many sufferings for Turkey today.” 

“No country, us included, has been able to produce a valid policy for a solution in Syria. I have been talking about this for years. I wish a valid perspective for peace could have been developed before. God willing, a solution will be found soon that the people of Syria could accept, not by imposition from outside. There is currently such a process going on, and at this point relations with Russia are important,” he said.

When asked about Russian and Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad, Kurtulmuş recalled an anecdote from Vladimir Putin’s last meeting with Erdoğan in Istanbul. “When asked, Putin said he was not al-Assad’s advocate. I don’t think Russia would tie its policies to a single individual. I believe the end of proxy wars has come. God willing, we will find a solution,” he said.

Kurtulmuş’s remarks are the boldest self-criticism of Turkey’s Syria policy so far by the highest ranking person in the Turkish government; indeed, Kurtulmuş is also the government’s spokesman.

The meeting with a group of journalists, academics and think tank heads where he made those remarks was not supposed to be about Syria policy. Rather, it was about Turkey’s public diplomacy efforts following the failed bloody coup attempt of July 15.

The Syria issue was opened up while Kurtulmuş was telling the group that one of the “most dangerous” things that Gülenists have done is the “disinformation campaign” about Turkey parting roads with the West. “It is not true,” Kurtulmuş said. “Turkey will keep all relations with countries and international institutions as they have been. The ‘shift of axis’ claims are baseless, Turkey has always had its own axis.”

The government accuses Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher living in the U.S., of masterminding the junta that committed the military coup attempt. It says Gülen’s followers are members of the “Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ),” which tried to overthrow the elected government and abolish parliament. The government is also asking the U.S. administration to extradite Gülen, who has arrest warrants against him in Turkey.

The government has two main difficulties in getting its voice heard in the West, according to Kurtulmuş. 
The first one is making clear that it was not only President Tayyip Erdoğan, but also all opposition leaders in parliament, a majority in the military and the police force, and most importantly the people taking the streets, who stopped thwarted the coup attempt. 

“It’s not only July 15,” Kurtulmuş said. “It is also Aug. 7, when the government and opposition leaders were united in standing against the coup in Istanbul in a rally of millions, the biggest political rally ever in the democratic world. This picture of the Turkish people standing against the coup while maintaining their political differences should be seen.”

The second problem, according to the deputy PM, is convincing the U.S. and the EU that Gülen and his followers were behind the coup attempt. “They have infiltrated into the state for decades. All recent governments are responsible for this situation,” Kurtulmuş said. “But the source of this problem is not our inability to get this story across; it is also because some of our allies do not want to understand it.” 

The government is aware that anti-Erdoğan sentiment, “partly built up by Gülenists,” has a role in the disappointing fact that Turkey has not been able to enjoy the support it thinks it deserves from the West for defeating the military coup attempt.

That difficulty might also partly be because of the fact that it was the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) that, until two or three years ago, was asking Western governments to let the schools and financial institutions of Gülen network be established in their countries. Despite many opposition politicians and journalists in Turkey trying to get their voice heard about the dangers of this group’s activities in the state apparatus, turning Gülen’s one-time image of a frail, pious philanthropist into a terrorist leader is far from easy.

“No state can let such an infection stay in its body,” Kurtulmuş also said. “The most dangerous Gülenists of them all are the crypto ones. They may not send their kids to Gülen schools, they do not have read or subscribed to Zaman newspaper; they may pretend to be socialists, nationalists, or even Kemalists. But they are waiting for their time to act. We are now identifying them through their secret communications channels. We must get rid of them. We must establish a new, democratic and transparent system so that this can never happen again.”