Why should America be the world’s policeman when Turkey is next door?
I want to thank Aylin Kocaman for the inspiration for this article. While I don’t agree with everything in her Assad; night watchman in an empty field piece, which has the added value of being published in Arabic, she has raised important questions in my mind. What should Turkey do about her neighbour Syria and how should we react should they do it?
It seems the world alternately condemns America for taking on the role of International Policeman and demands that they do. The article claims that America, which proposed solution packages of a few items for Syria and was uncertain over “should we or should we not arm the opposition”, could of course have quickly put an end to Assad’s wickedness had it so wished. Could it really, or would Syria quickly become another Iraq-Afghanistan quagmire with America as the villain?
It would seem that America may have been quietly arming the opposition with left-over weapons from Gaddafi, using Turkey as a conduit, anyway. Some analysts would have us believe that the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi was directly related. However as neither Turkey nor America will admit it (possibly because 70% of Americans oppose sending arms to Syria) we will have to consider it an intriguing conspiracy theory and proceed on the basis that America (or is that Obama?) is still deciding.
Kocaman proposed three possible reasons for American reluctance:
- Obama’s adoption of the Neocon strategy of “Leave them to fight it out so we can relax,”
- His adoption of the policy of “Withdrawal from the Middle East,” much favored by intellectuals in America,
- Reluctance for his country to engage in new involvements because of the ongoing economic crisis in America.
I would propose a fourth. America can’t make up its mind about who is wearing the white hat.
America is deeply unconvinced that the Sunni opposition in Syria will be any less anti-American than Assad. It is deeply concerned, as are the various minorities such as the Kurds, Christians, Druse and most importantly the Assad’s own Alawites, that a majority Sunni victory will lead to short-term massacres and long-term persecution. It is deeply concerned that a ‘victory’ in Syria could lead to further international complication, with Iran on one side and Turkey whose longest border is with Syria on the other.
Turkey and Syria have a long list of disputes such as self annexation of the Hatay Province (formerly Sanjak of Alexanderetta) to Turkey in 1939, water disputes resulting from the Southeastern Anatolia Project, and Syria’s support for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (abbreviated as PKK) and Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (abbreviated as ASALA) which have been recognised as a terrorist organisation by NATO, EU, and many other countries. While relations had warmed with the Assad regime, until suspended due to the war, there is no certainty they would remain thawed with his successor. As I said complications.
A role for Turkey? Should they?
Turkey has ample legal justification to send in its military. There is the issue of refugees/ asylum-seekers coming across the border. Apparently Turkey officially describes them as guests. There is the issue of the bus attack on November 21, 2011 when two buses carrying Turkish pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia came under fire from Syrian soldiers. There is the Syrian fire across the Syria-Turkey border injuring and killing Turkish civilians. There is the shooting down of a Turkish Air Force RF-4E reconnaissance jet near the Turkish-Syrian border. There are accusations of arms smuggling across Turkish airspace. There are the two car bombs that were exploded, on 11 May 2013, in the town of Reyhanlı, Hatay Province, Turkey. This attack was the deadliest single act of terrorism to occur on Turkish soil.
My point here is not to be comprehensive. I probably missed some incidents and new ones are bound to emerge. My point is that should Turkey decide to intervene they have ample justification. In addition the moral justification is self-evident – to halt the carnage that has killed at least 100,000 in the last two years.
Turkey recognised the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, commonly named the Syrian National Coalition as Sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people on 15 November 2012.
Is there any doubt that the modern Turkish military, armed with American weapons and tacit N.A.T.O. support would cut through Turkey like a knife through butter?† The official Syrian military would be no match (they are barely containing the much poorer armed and trained rebels) and I would speculate that in return for an amnesty and a reasonable peace proposal much of that army might desert. The opposition, receiving their arms and finances through Turkey shouldn’t be too difficult to persuade.
Will any Arab state openly oppose Turkey against Iran? That whole Sunni/Shiite thing comes into play, again. Not that the Arabs had any reason to love the Ottoman but Turkey has one huge advantage that America has not. It is a Muslim country.
The Assad regime might talk about Arab unity but that has never stopped them interfering with the domestic affairs of their neighbours. Payback time has come. Already Saudi Arabia and Qatar are helping the rebels in the only way they can, with money – but that still carries a great deal of weight.
On an individual level Jordan, as always, will back both sides and claim to have always supported the winner. Lebanon? It can’t help but be pleased to see Hezbollah’s patron and regional bully taken down.
I suspect for many reasons the Arab League, as an organisation, will be very happy to see the Assad bullies fall. Like the European Union they may not help and may be forced to say some politically correct things, out of the side of their mouths, but I doubt if they will do anything serious to oppose.
On the other hand, the Ottomans ruled the Arabs, with an iron hand, for 500 years. Would the Arabs be prepared and happy to drop centuries of resentment to save the lives of further tens of thousands of their Arab brothers? Would they assist militarily and in world forums? The experience of Arab disunity, broken alliances and wars during the last century leaves that question wide open.
Erdoğan even exudes an image of the future Caliph to some Arabs. It may sound frivolous, but this is the reality in the Arab and the wider Islamic world. Even In Turkey, while campaigning next to mosques following the Friday prayers, he is also seen by some as a sort of return to the Ottoman Caliphate.Turkey’s goal is to enhance its regional power and seek economic dominance, not create a brotherhood of Turks and Arabs holding hands.Ali Suleiman 2012
Bahrein, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia have given diplomatic recognition to the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The Arab League gave it Syria’s chair.
Europe – playing with themselves on the fence
Speculating once again I don’t think Europe will be a problem. Since having spectacularly failed to prevent atrocities in Bosnia the European Union is reduced to masturbating when ever a genuine human rights crisis arises. While individual states, such as France, may take the initiative as they did in Chad, as a group nothing decisive is likely. They may be very pleased to have someone else take on the responsibility, especially if that somebody else is not America.
Going even further. How likely is it that Europe would stab Turkey in the back, by for example refusing their airspace to military supplies, as they have done for Israel? N.A.T.O could (almost) legitimately claim they were assisting a member under attack. Even if the cowards, fearful of a Muslim/Arab/Iranian response on their own territory might feel obliged to halfheartedly criticise they wouldn’t do much more.
France, Italy, United Kingdom, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg now accept the Syrian National Council as Syria’s legitimate government.
Russia – always the spoiler
Turkey doesn’t actually have a border with Russia being separated by the Black Sea and Georgia but they do have interests in common. Turkey has a foreign policy of Zero Problems with their neighbours and no doubt Russia would like to keep it that way.
Russia has become Turkey’s top trading partner mainly in Russia’s favour. According to commentator Mehmet Ali Birand, The level of economic and political relations is such that neither Turkey can forgo Russia, nor Russia Turkey…the future of Assad is nothing.
Without doubt the Russians must be wondering if they backed the losing horse in Assad. While they would oppose American intervention on principle that isn’t necessarily the case with Turkey. In exchange for guarantees that their exist privileges, such as the return to the recently abandoned naval base in Tartus, Russia could cooperate. it would put them, at a very least, on a better footing with the new Sunni administration should Assad fall.
Not so long ago, my feelings are that Israel would have supported any military action by ally Turkey. If it didn’t support it, Israel would have been quiet about it. Now I’m not so sure. Abuse and the Mavi Marmara go a long way in building distrust.
Not that Turkey would necessarily welcome open Israeli support. It is a given in Arab politics that the simplest way to attack an opponent is to accuse him of collaborating with the Zionists or even being Jewish. Bashar Assad has been accused of being Jewish and in return his supporters accuse the Syrian opposition as being controlled by Zionists. Even the Arab League becomes a Zionist tool in this analysis. An alternate theory is that somehow Israel is responsible for the entire civil war. Google Zionist plot in Syria and see how many hits you get.
Does anyone really believe the my-enemy-is-a-Zionist libel? Surely opposing claims of hidden Jewish grandfathers cancel each other out? By accusing your opponent of being Jewish/Zionist (somehow the mantra that criticism of Israel is not antisemitism is always ignored in Arabic) you turn even the mildest support into treason. Any Israeli connection, however marginal, could turn pragmatic support of Turkey’s intervention, to the slaughter, into treason.
On the other hand quiet or even secret cooperation between Turkey and Israel, even with a denial that no one believes, would be essential for a quick, low casualty, Turkish victory. The last thing Turkey needs is a clash between the two hi-tech forces. At a minimum, they will have to exchange friend-or-foe identification codes. Also, Israel has intelligence eyes and ears on Mt. Hermon into Syria. That’s an asset no Turkish general will want to forego, particularly when they push southwards.
Another issue may well be Israel’s acceptance of refugees/fleeing fighters caused by the Turkish action. There is a historical precedent for this. When King Hussein finally lost patience with the Palestinian undermining of pro-Western regime he took action in what the Palestinians named Black September. Seventy-two Palestinians who were afraid of the Jordanian soldiers chose to undertake the most humiliating action possible for them: They fled to the West Bank and surrendered to IDF soldiers.
What would Israel do if the thousands of defeated soldiers and their families appeared on its doorstep? For that matter what would Jordan and Iraq do?
There is the additional and not less important factor of face-saving. In 2009, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insulted Israel’s President Peres then left the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Returning to an open military cooperation, even without Israel firing a shot, will be difficult to explain. The famous, You killed people. And I think that it is very wrong statement gained Erdoğan great credit with the Arabs. Going to war in an Arab country may lose it.
America the brave
The United States also gave diplomatic recognition to the Syrian National Council in 2012; Assad has been a constant thorn in America’s side and is directly supported by foe Iran and Turkey is an important NATO ally. American arms have been promised although depending to whom you are talking they have yet to reach the rebels or have been arriving for months.
US support in a Turkish intervention should be a no-brainer. It would have been with anyone other than Barak Obama as P.O.T.U.S.
Questions for the day after?
Let’s assume a quick Turkish victory. • Would Syria quickly become another Iraq-Afghanistan quagmire with Turkey as the villain?
What would Turkey do to avoid repeating the American experience? America turned Iraq into a ‘democracy’ but, to a large extent due to Syria encouraging and arming a violent opposition, couldn’t leave.
The attempts I’ve seen to install democracy in short periods of time where there is no history and no roots have failed. .”
Marine General Anthony Zinni (retired) Head of U.S. Central Command 1997 to 2000
Democratising probably will not be enough or would an imposed Turkish model suit better?
Should Iran take over the spoiler role in Syria or the country be split into warring enclaves Turkey would have its own problems leaving.
• Will Turkish methods of policing the peace be any more effective than American ones? If we judge by the means used domestically to neutralise criticism they could be brutal. That is not a criticism. Perhaps brutality would be the answer in a society that expects brutality?
Some might respond that the coalition in Iraq is equally or more brutal in attempting to suppress the insurgency. My answer is that death through a drone strike and death through rifle bullet from a soldier close enough to see the whites of his eyes are qualitatively and psychologically different. That obviously doesn’t matter to the deceased but may be crucial in influencing the survivors.
• Will Turkey be willing and able protect the Syrian minority groups from a Sunni majority, especially one possibly dominated by radical Islamists? Some analysts contend that clever manipulation of the fears of these groups was the glue that kept the Alawite government (itself a minority group) in power.
When one looks at some of these groups the situation becomes very complicated. The Alawites who control the regime and hold most of the highest positions are officially Shiite Muslim. However there are some who say they are not Muslim, at all, but a heretic breakaway sect. Turkey is a Sunni state; the majority of the Syrian rebels are Sunni as are the majority of Muslims, worldwide. While Turkey probably wouldn’t take an official stand on the centuries old Sunni-Shiite rift the situation on the ground could be quite different.
Even if disciplined Turkish soldiers don’t take an active part in attacks against the Alawites would they necessarily take an active part in defending them?
Syria was known to have supported terrorists operating against Turkey such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, commonly known as the PKK and Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA). The Assad regime was quite capable of ensuring they didn’t operate against Syria or Syria’s interests. That restriction is gone.
Kurds who make up about 9% of Syria’s population (approximately 2 million people) and have established areas of control on the Turkish border. Turkey has frequently crossed over the Iraqi border to attack the PKK there. Would Syria be any different?
Apparently the al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organizations, al-Nusra Front (ANF) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)†† have been laying siege on the Kurdish towns and villages; killing, kidnapping, and torturing hundreds of innocent Kurdish civilians, including women and children. Moreover, it has been reported that the al-Qaeda affiliated clerics have issued fatwas (religious edict), to permit the murder, rape, looting, and torture of the Kurdish civilians. Today they are arguably allies. Tomorrow they could be a threat to the prospect of a democratic Syria and to the stability of the Middle East.
Armenians pose a similar problem although their numbers are smaller at an estimated 100,000. Many are descendants of those who fled wars and persecutions involving the Ottoman predecessors of Turkey. Here I have deliberately avoided referring to the Armenian Genocide because of the continuing Turkish position that it did not take place. It’s not necessary to take a stand on it. Turkish Armenian relations are strained either way.
There are no formal diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia which may have served to moderate the issue and Turkey supports Turkic Azerbaijan over the Nagarno-Karabakh conflict.
Although the ASALA group has not engaged in militant activity since an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the Turkish ambassador to Hungary in 1991 the threats made by the Armenian terrorist group over Syria are a possible taste of things to come.
Christians in Syria make up about 10% of the population. They form one of the longest established Christian communities of the world. Under the Assads conditions were relatively benign as Syria does not profess a state religion, and does not officially favor any religion over another. Christians served in some government positions and in the army. In the current conflict their stance has generally ranged from neutrality to supporting the Assad government. An Assad defeat leaves open the possibility of revenge attacks.
Some fear that they will suffer the same consequences as the Christians of Iraq and Egypt if the government is overthrown. Would a Turkey considering designating May 29th, the fall of Christian Constantinople to Ottoman Turkish Sultan, Mohammed (Mehmet) II as a Turkish national holiday protect them more than their counterparts in Iraq and Egypt?
• The most important question for the ‘day after’ and the last one: What would be Turkey’s exit strategy? Feel free to insert your own solution.
Outside the box
Just a thought to be considered. Syria’s basic problem may well be that it is a collection of warring groups lacking a national identity. It actually required dictators like the Assads to keep it together. What would happen if Turkey offered Syria, by referendum, to join Turkey in a federation arrangement? Send your answers in a comment.
- Assad; night watchman in an empty field, Aylin Kocaman, Asharq al Awsat (translated), 03 August 2013
- Turkey, Syria and Autonomous Region, Aylin Kocaman, Asharq al Awsat (translated), 27 July 2013
A Perspective from Turkey
- Perspectives –Political analysis and commentary from Turkey, Heinrich Böll Stiftung. published quarterly
A Perspective from the Arabs
- Reality check: Turco-Arab Relations, Ali Suleiman, Kalimat – Winter 12, Issue 4, p.18
A Perspective from the Kurds
- The Syrian Kurds: A Key Element in the Syrian Conflict, Delovan Barwari, Huffington Post, 14 August 2013
† Completely off on a tangent. The Syrians have been making butter using a vessel made from goatskin for a churn, for centuries.
* Original source unknown
†† AKA Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)