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April 02, 2012, Monday

Syria and the sectarian war

Syria is a matter of internal security for Turkey. Our longest running common border is with this country. At the same time, we have a common problem: the Kurdish issue.

Moreover, they have Nusayrism as an Arab version of Shiism, and we have Alevism as a Turkish version of Shiism. However, the tension between Turkey and Syria does not have a religious basis. Rather, it concerns democracy, security and personal reasons. By personal, I mean Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s personal rage against President Bashar al-Assad. Erdoğan wants his counterparts to keep their promises. It does not matter if his counterparts are statesmen or businessmen.

Erdoğan complains about Assad making promises to him but never keeping them. This partially explains why he has adopted such a harsh attitude against Syria.

Given their recent course, the bilateral relations between the two countries will hardly normalize. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s Syria policy rests purely on their fear of Iran, and therefore, it has a sectarian basis. In its position as Iran’s outpost, Syria has an indispensable importance. If the Assad regime is overthrown, Iran may try to ensure that the Nusayri minority establishes a small state in the region. Thanks to backing from Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki, Iran may proceed with this plan easily.

It would be a great risk for the Middle East if the countries in the region start to rely more and more on sectarian-oriented policies. Indeed, this has the risk of triggering a sectarian war that would be detrimental to all societies in the region. Saudi Arabia, which does not give their own people any democratic rights and which has sent troops to Bahrain to suppress the democratic demands of the Bahraini people, and Qatar mainly aim to eliminate the Shiite crescent in the region and deal a blow to Iran.

The fact that Iraq is currently under Shiite dominance and moving toward partition adds to the fears of these two countries.

Here, the predicament faced by Western regimes and Turkey is that they have to cooperate with similar regimes in order to overthrow a regime that they accuse of ill-treating its people.

Indeed, in their position against the Assad regime, these regimes nurture sectarian fears, not concern for respect of democratic rights in the region. The Muslim world will be unable to complete its democratic development if it doesn’t jettison sectarian policies. In this regard, Turkey’s past conduct can be a model for the countries in the region.

Turkey may be at odds with Iran concerning Syria and Iraq, but it continues to defend Iran’s rights concerning nuclear energy. This is because it forms foreign policy along sectarian lines.

Both its Ottoman past and its ability to internationalize Western values give Turkey this perspective. The Friends of Syria group should present a vision for the international community to counter the Assad regime and equip them with the right perspective so they can show equal respect to different religious denominations and segments. Otherwise, the collapse of the Assad regime will not solve any problems, and it may even lead to far greater, more complicated chaos in the region.

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