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July 11, 2012, Wednesday

How Syria divided Turkey’s conservatives

Last week was marked by the two-day running of an interview with President Bashar al-Assad by Utku Çakırözer in the Cumhuriyet daily. The interview highlighted the stark differences between the Turkish government and the Assad regime on what has transpired over the past year or more.

Apart from the cheap exploitation by some circles of the interview with pure domestic political motivations, it served to remind us all about the ongoing debate within Turkey’s conservative circles. I was rather intrigued by that dimension and hope to offer some light on what that debate means and why it is important.

There is little doubt that Turkey’s conservatives are heavily divided over how to handle the Syrian crisis. In my view, Turkey’s conservatives are roughly divided into three camps on this issue: (1) The center consists of those who approve of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s approach, which involves hosting the Syrian opposition, refraining from direct intervention and hoping for the quick removal of the Assad regime; (2) the right of that center wants more aggressive measures to facilitate the quick downfall of Assad, preferably with international legitimacy but does not see this as a must; (3) the left of that center is very much opposed to any Turkish intervention and sees Turkey’s current opposition to the Assad regime as a larger ploy to weaken the anti-Israel resistance front.

Needless to say, this is a rough lumping together and there are more nuances to list. Yet, roughly, the conservative camp views Syria from these three main outlooks. I would argue that the large majority of Turkey’s conservatives are still behind the government on Syria, though they are not very vocal. The second group consists of a younger generation of conservatives. This is a much smaller group but more politically active, which sees a disconnect between the government’s discourse and its actions. It demands more Turkish involvement and leadership. The third group is opposed to groups one and two. It clashes on the fundamentals of the Syrian crisis. Far from seeing the Syrian crisis as a fight for democratization and liberation from an oppressive regime, this camp looks at the region from a more fundamentalist Islamist outlook. Some of them are mere skeptics, but the bulk consists of people who were genuinely impacted by the Islamic revolution in Iran and have a more apocalyptical vision of the region. That vision defines the fight against Israel as the fundamental problem of the region and tends to see Syria as a proxy war between Saudi-Qatari Wahhabism and Iranian-Nusayri Shiism. This group is relatively older and quite vocal. They also tend to see the AK Party government as moving too much to the center rather than maintaining its former Islamist zeal. It sees Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as too cozy with US President Obama.

The Syrian crisis has killed Turkey’s romanticism about the Middle East. Syria has also destroyed the internal consensus regarding the government’s foreign policy motives toward the neighborhood. Accusations of overreaching, inconsistency on value-based foreign policy and a return to more antagonistic or hard power methods have significantly unsettled the conservative consensus. However, the real debate within the conservative camp is actually a generational one. Younger conservatives strive to integrate universal values such as human rights, minority rights, democracy and the rule of law with that of their conservative Weltanschauung. They are young Muslim democrats who demand Turkey raise its voice against human rights violations in Bahrain, Syria and Darfur. They are uncomfortable being seen supporting dictators, be they Muslim or not. These conservatives are viewed with sympathetic eyes by Turkey’s liberals and non-prejudiced social democrats and centrists. The fight for Turkey’s soul will be between the traditionalists and these younger conservatives. Syria has served to cause such differences to emerge and new coalitions to be shaped. How this debate will develop and which actors will emerge from it will determine Turkey’s future outlook. It remains to be seen whether Turkey’s young conservative democrats will be able to assert themselves.

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