Turkey looks likely to win gamble on Syria, says scholar

Turkey looks likely to win gamble on Syria, says scholar

ANKARA - Hürriyet Daily News
Turkey looks likely to win gamble on Syria, says scholar

Professor Abdülkadir Çevik is the founder of the Turkish Psychopolitical Association, which publishes psychopolitical analysis of foreign policy issues. DAILY NEWS photo, Selahattin SÖNMEZ

Turkey has failed to show sympathy with the sensitivities of Syria’s Alawite-led government, a specialist on political psychology has said, but added that Turkey might ultimately come out a victor on Syria through its gamble of presenting an uncompromising stance from the beginning.

But Professor Abdülkadir Çevik, who together with colleagues Senem Ersaydı and Rifat S. İlhan has been observing Turkey’s policy in Syria from the angle of political psychology, recently told the Hürriyet Daily News in an interview that being vindicated in Syria should not let Turkey fall into the trap of narcissism.

What are your conclusions about the government’s Syria policy when you analyze it from the angle of political psychology?

We believe the government at the beginning acted too fast and forced itself into a specific position. There was an impression that the government acted without having enough knowledge about the balance of power in Syria and that it would leave Turkey in a complicated situation. In fact, until recently, Turkey felt the difficulties of that complicated position. [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad was expected to fall in a matter of days but it’s been a year since it was said he would be gone in a few days’ time.

You also claim the positions of Iran and Russia as well were not adequately analyzed.

Due to Iran’s and Russia’s positions, the process was prolonged and there was an impression that the government made a wrong assessment. This also led to a division inside Turkey, between the government and the opposition. We believe the opposition also made a mistake by giving the impression that they were defending al-Assad. Actually, no one would want a leader that has committed atrocities against his people stay in power.

But there was a U-turn in the relationship, which was so close in the past that we were nearly holding joint Cabinet meetings. This U-turn led to a serious questioning by the public. The Turkish public was not prepared for this quick change in our policies toward Syria.

What is the consequence of this feeling in society?

This has created a division in society, and it even led to questioning in the ruling party. A reaction emerged against Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

You claim that in the past Alawites were the victims and, therefore, they are clinging to power as they fear becoming victims again. You argue that the Turkish government failed to feel empathy with the sensitivities of the Alawite government.

In Turkey, the current government saw itself in the past as the victim. It came to the government by claiming it was the victim, and it is still holding to this victim psychology. Under normal circumstances, a victim should best understand the [suffering] of the victim, but there was no empathy in this respect [with the al-Assad regime].

But the problem is, when you look at the recent past, Alawites have been in the government and they have not been in the position of victim but aggressor for decades.

Yes, but the historical past is always very important. Look at our example. Look at the supporters of the government who have been claiming to be oppressed and victimized; are they still the injured party, are they still the victim? No, they are not. But they keep it on the agenda all the time because being victimized has become part of the identity. And once victimization becomes an essential part of one’s identity, losing that title will lead to a vacuum, as it is not something desired. Instead of tolerating that loss, it may become more desirable to continue to exist with that “feeling of victimization.”

But then there is also the case of the victims forgetting their suffering and becoming aggressor themselves, committing their own atrocities.

They use their past victimization in such a way that they come to the point of saying, “whatever we do we have the right to do it.” This is called entitlement psychology. We see this reflex manifested by victims once they grab power.

Perhaps Turkey just looked at the current picture and avoided including historical facts while making its analysis about Syria and therefore failed to show empathy; is this what you are saying?

This could be one of the reasons for being unable to show empathy with Syria. Also, sometimes the trauma you suffer gives you such a feeling of victimization that you never want to recall that suffering. So sometimes you prefer not to recall your grievances and bring to the fore the aggressor in you. For instance, there are patients that have suffered terribly in a car accident; they can’t even tolerate any conversation about car accidents.

So in a way, in order to avoid remembering their own suffering in the past, they turn a blind eye to the victimization of others. Could that be the reason behind the ruling party’s lack of empathy with al-Assad?

 This is a possibility. But there are also world realities, the realities about the Middle East. All these are different factors. We just focus on political psychology.

Well, some could say the lack of empathy stems from sectarian differences, as the government is perceived to be favoring Sunnis.

I personally do not say that. But there is such a perception in the world, and this needs to be rectified. But right now we are not saying that Turkey’s policy in Syria has collapsed. Al-Assad’s days are numbered. The criticisms are about the methods used.

It was a gamble. Turkey gambled and, right now, it looks like it is set to win. But until recently it really looked in shambles. Davutoğlu was the target of fierce criticism.

If the regime falls, government officials will be able to tell you: “See, we were right. Had we done otherwise, this would have prolonged the life of the regime, as it wanted to gain time.”

Of course they will be able to. What we do is not about “mine is right, yours is wrong.” Everybody has her own way of doing things. At one stage, it was said that al-Assad would go in a matter of days. [As] this has not been the case, we have to think that something has gone wrong, that there was some miscalculation; therefore, there is a need to ask what could have been done differently. Look how many people died in Egypt and look how many died in Syria. We had suggested a way that did not involve arms. We are a group that favors peace. One of the purposes of political psychology is to solve problems through peaceful ways and contributing to policies that prioritize human lives.

In our country, each time we used violence, we got back violence in kind. Haven’t we lost 40,000 people? We could have approached Syria with that experience in mind and used our friendship and our close ties with Syria to convince them [to implement] a solution that would call for the participation of all sides around the table.

A government that wanted to have a “zero problems with neighbors” policy could have been a bit more sensitive.

Do you think the government might draw some conclusions from past experience or, on the contrary, will it become much more self-confident amid feelings of vindication?

The second option seems likely to happen. I would not want that to happen. Narcissism is very interesting: Once someone becomes very successful this can boost self-esteem tremendously.

I believe what is expected of Turkey in the global framework is to work as a wise man and mediator. And for this, it is very important to have the ability to show empathy. This is one of the most important things required to be a good mediator.


Abdülkadir Çevik, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at Ankara University Medical School. Çevik completed his residency at Ankara University and worked with psychoanalyst Professor Vamık D. Volkan at the University of Virginia from 1980 to 1982 and in 1992. Çevik served as an adviser to the Turkish prime minister 1992 to 1997 and has been an instructor at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Turkish Police Directorate General Headquarters and Defense Institute at the Turkish Military College. Çevik was the director of the Political Psychology Center from 1992 to 1997. He is the former chair of the Ankara University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry. He established the Turkish Psychopolitical Association in 2006. He is currently the director of the Ankara University Center for the Study and Research of Political Psychology. Çevik has given many conferences in the medical field as well as in political psychology. Çevik is the author of two books, various articles and manuscripts and is a frequent lecturer at the NATO COE-DAT in Ankara. Çevik is an honorary fellow of the American Psychoanalytic Association and is a member of the International Dialogue Initiative.