Syria exposes dangerous fault lines in Turkey

Syria exposes dangerous fault lines in Turkey

The spillover from the civil war in Syria is exposing dangerous fault lines in Turkish society. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his supporters are pursuing an assertive and aggressive stance both domestically and in the foreign policy arena. Internationally, they are pushing for a more aggressive stance against embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while at home they accuse the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) of supporting the al-Assad regime due to its opposition to authorizing the Turkish army to carry out attacks on foreign soil.

Disturbingly, there is a growing tendency on the government’s part to explaining the CHP position on sectarian grounds: since many of the CHP voters are Alevis, a heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam, the party stands accused of siding with al-Assad because of the supposed confessional solidarity between Alevis’ and Syrian Alawites (al-Assad is an Alawite).

The facts, however, tell a different story. From the outset of the crisis, the CHP defended a solution that would be consistent with international law and empower all Syrians, not just the opposition, to decide on the future of their country. In this context, in September 2011, CHP foreign policy chief Faruk Loğoğlu paid a visit to Damascus, where he was received by al-Assad. His aim was to keep the channels of communication between Ankara and Damascus open, not to endorse the al-Assad regime.

As subsequent developments have tragically shown, the CHP had a point: since official relations broke down, al-Assad reportedly stepped up support for the terrorist outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Meanwhile, the hopes of Erdoğan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, that al-Assad’s fall was imminent have yet to materialize. Faced with this reality, Turkey upped the ante by throwing its weight squarely behind the opposition, and only one part of it at that: the Muslim Brotherhood-influenced Syrian National Council, consisting mostly of exiles, and the Free Syrian Army, which is committed to overthrowing al-Assad through military action.

This choice is to the detriment of other major opposition groups, such as the National Coordination Bureau, which is Syrian-based, non-sectarian, opposed to foreign intervention and committed to a diplomatic solution. While Erdoğan and Davutoğlu claim the moral high ground, in reality, the policy of one-sided support for the opposition, including its military arm, is only prolonging the bloodshed and devastation. It is not only the al-Assad regime which commits war crimes: a report from the Human Rights Watch has a detailed account of atrocities committed by rebels groups as well. Criticizing these Turkish government policies does not make the CHP a supporter of the al-Assad regime. Indeed, when the Turkish police violently dispersed a demonstration marking the Republic Day on Oct. 29, the CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called the Turkish Prime Minister “Recep Assad Erdoğan” – hardly a ringing endorsement of the Syrian dictator.

As for the CHP-Alevi link, a distinction should be made between the Alevis’ supposed sectarian solidarity with the Syrian Alawites and their attitude to the al-Assad regime. While the extent of the former is disputed, there is no evidence of the latter, i.e., that Alevis have a particular sympathy for the al-Assad regime. Indeed, Selahattin Özel, the chairman of a leading Alevi association, condemned the Syrian regime as “anti-humanist.” If Alevis are against foreign military intervention in Syria, it is due to their left-leaning political views, not sectarian considerations.

In this, they are remarkably in tune with the majority of Turkish public opinion: according to a survey carried out by EDAM, a leading Turkish think tank, around 60 percent of Turks believe that Turkey should either not interfere in any way in Syria or pursue diplomatic, not military, initiatives to solve the conflict. Therefore, singling out Alevis for their alleged “anti-Sunni bias,” as some critics do, simply does not hold water.

Erdoğan and his supporters’ frustration with the bloody gridlock in Syria is understandable. But accusing the main opposition party in their own country of siding with the enemy because of policy differences and thus feeding into anti-Alevi prejudice is both irresponsible and dangerous.
It’s not just Syria; the long-term stability of Turkey is also at stake.

ldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament; Can Selçuki is a researcher at the Brussels-based think tank Centre for European Policies Studies;
they both write in their personal capacities.