Who’s who in Turkey vis-a-vis Syria

Who’s who in Turkey vis-a-vis Syria

These days many international media outlets are running “breaking news” about the growing tension between Turkey and the Syrian regime. The latest issue was the grounding of a Syrian passenger plane that was flying from Moscow to Damascus before it was forced to land in Ankara by Turkish jets. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that the passenger jet was carrying “military equipment” from Russia’s arms export agency to the Syrian defense department. Both Russia and Syria were angered by the incident.

Such news may give the image of a Turkey that is determined to defy the Syrian regime, and the Turkish government is so determined. But public opinion is quite divided on the issue, and there are a wide range of views.

First, there are those who support Erdoğan’s strong anti-al-Assad stance, which can be roughly categorized in groups: First are the mild Islamists or Muslim conservatives who already support Erdoğan on most issues. They also see the Syrian case from a Sunni perspective, and feel deeply for the enormous suffering that the predominantly Sunni Syrian opposition is going through. The second group that supports the government’s anti-al-Assad stance of the government is a segment of secular liberals who would be called “liberal interventionists” in the West. They have supported the Arab Spring out of a commitment to democracy, and they support the Syrian Revolution as well.

There are also less idealistic secular liberals, however. They believe that it is too dangerous for Turkey to defy its southern neighbor, and that Erdoğan should instead focus on problems at home. This line of thought resonates with the general public as well, as many people simply believe, “we should not interfere in the Arabs’ business.”

If the view that we should not become involved in Syria represents the center, then there is also the left-of-center. These are Turks who not only believe that the al-Assad regime should be left alone, but also that this regime is legitimate, if not praiseworthy. Interestingly enough, a small segment of this camp consists of hardcore Islamists with pro-Iranian sympathies. Their lifelong mission is to condemn and oppose the West, particularly the United States, so they are happy to buy into rhetoric that portrays al-Assad as an “anti-imperialist” and “anti-Zionist” hero.

More interestingly, the very same view is shared by some ultra-secular Turks too, who subscribe either to some form of communism or a blend of communism and Kemalism. The ardent defender of the latter synthesis, Doğu Perinçek, the leader of the Maoist/Kemalist İşçi Partisi (Workers Party), recently wrote a column which praised Baathism as “the Kemalism of the Arabs.” (Mr. Perinçek is in jail now, as one of the accused in the “Ergenekon” coup trial case.)

Another very large block in this pro-al-Assad camp consists of most of Turkey’s Alevis, who show a clearly sectarian bias in favor of Syria’s Alawis, the very backbone of the al-Assad regime. (These two highly unorthodox sects of Islam are not identical, but similar.) That is one reason why the party that most Turkish Alevis vote for, the main opposition CHP (People’s Republican Party), has expressed some pro-al-Assad sympathies since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution.

Finally, if you ask where I stand, I am certainly with the mild Islamists and secular liberals who condemn the al-Assad regime. In order to end the mass murder in Syria, I agree with none other than U.S. Senator John McCain that the al-Assad regime should be bombed by a coalition of the willing. Unfortunately, however, that remains a very marginal and unlikely option.