Visiting Ankara as a special guest of the Prime Ministry Public Diplomacy Coordinator’s Office, Khanfar responded to Today’s Zaman’s questions, in an exclusive interview, on a number of issues affecting the Middle East. He highlighted that the Arab Spring is a legitimate, natural and organic process that emerged within the dynamics of the region and criticized Iran’s sectarian policy for hijacking the democratic processes in both Iraq and Syria. He also invited powerful Gulf Arab countries to embrace the new political trends in the Arab Spring countries, instead of regarding them with apprehension.
“Iran should support people’s aspirations for democracy. If Iran continues to support [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, they will continue to lose popularity in the Arab world,” Khanfar asserted. He claimed that Iran’s efforts to create a rift in the region based on sectarian lines are dangerous for a Middle East that offers a religious and cultural plurality. “Iran, Iraq and most of the region are a mosaic of culture and sects. If you play the [sectarian] game it could spread into other countries as well, which is dangerous,” the former journalist said.
The Shiite-based policies of Iraq’s President Nouri al-Maliki, who leans on Iran a great deal, have become more abrupt after the withdrawal of US troops from the country on Dec. 31 last year. Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi just one day after the withdrawal for allegedly running a death squad. Maliki’s policies against the al-Iraqiyya bloc, its most prominent rival in the 2010 elections, and Sunni members of the government, have been understood as efforts to monopolize power, marring the possibility of an Iraqi constitution that is based on a balance of power between the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations of the country.
Khanfar maintained that Gulf countries also failed to show enough support to the cause of the Arab people during the revolutions. While mentioning that their role has been positive overall, he asserted that they also could not hide fears about the direction the revolutionary states are headed, especially under the new leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in some of the countries like Egypt and Tunisia. The rising role of the Muslim Brotherhood in political life is not only a concern for Israel, but also for the Gulf, who fear the spread of political Islam into their own territories.
Of the stable and rich Gulf countries, Qatar has been the staunchest supporter of the Arab Spring, being the first country to recognize Libya’s rebel government and making the most significant Arab contribution by way of fighter jets, enforcing the no-fly zone and naval blockade or providing military logistical assistance to the ongoing military intervention there. However, Saudi Arabia, the biggest country of the region, becomes the unofficial leader in paying lip service to the counter-revolution. The country, aligning itself with United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have repeatedly accused Iran on fomenting instability in the region, especially in Bahrain, which has a majority Shiite population. Saudi Arabia sees the Arab uprisings as an unprecedented threat to regional security.
When it comes to Turkey, Khanfar appreciated the role played by the country in the Arab Spring revolutions, both as a supporter and as a cultural and economic role model as the new regimes try to establish themselves. “Turkey did take a proactive position regarding the Arab Spring in most of the cases. Turkey has a chance to extend its hand to the Arab countries especially to those that have had a revolution by establishing an economic, cultural and political partnership,” Khanfar argued, saying that thus far, things are moving in the right direction, but not at the desired speed.
‘Int’l community should take measures to prevent Syria from becoming Palestine’
Khanfar touched upon bargaining with Syria and running out of political mechanisms where the country is concerned, as well as the ongoing killings of Syrians despite a truce brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan, Khanfar claimed that Turkey should play a more proactive role in Syria. “The Syrian issue could be much better dealt with by Turkey. Turkey should assume a stronger and much more proactive position to lead an international consensus for a much more solid achievement, especially in providing arms support to the rebels,” he noted.
The international community which gathered to discuss the Syrian crisis on a series of occasions, such as at the UN General Assembly sessions and Friends of Syria group meetings, have proven to be reluctant to provide military arms to Syrian insurgents, arguing that it would severe the security situation, preparing the grounds for a full-fledged civil war. The Syrian conflict has already spread across the border into Lebanon, crystallizing a sectarian clash between Shiite supporters of the Assad regime and Sunnis in both Syria and neighboring Lebanon.
Political observers have largely agreed on that Annan’s peace plan under the mandate of UN Security Council had rendered the Friends of Syria group redundant, weakening the initiative on taking tougher measures against the Syrian regime, such as providing arms support to the opposition. The Annan Plan made so many concessions to the Assad government, by including it in the peace process as an interlocutor, in order to have the consent of all council members, including Assad supporters of Russia and China.
Khanfar claimed that the Annan plan would be the first step towards the “Palestinianization” of the Syrian issue, due to its paralyzing of other initiatives, which could potentially bring a solid contribution on the ground, making the peace talks something technical. Asserting that Annan plan has already failed, Khanfar enunciated: “I am afraid that the real focus about Syria is moving from the aim to save the people into saving the [Annan plan] process. The process should not be a target. It should have a time limit. Otherwise we will continue to speak about a process similar to the Palestinian process, where we don’t talk about peace itself but the process of peace.”
On Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated that the Annan plan remained central to resolving the Syrian conflict, after the Houla Massacre, which according to the UN, left 108 people dead, including 49 children, has sparked grave criticisms from the international community and from Syrians themselves. The 27-nation EU bloc has already pressed UN Human Rights Council to recommend the Security Council to refer Houla to the ICC. However, as is shown in the vetoes of Russia and China to such recommendation, the way to bring Assad before the court seems to be blocked.
‘Palestine issue to remain on backburner until winds lull in Syria, Egypt’
When asked about the future of the situation in Palestine, his homeland, Khanfar claimed “As long as the transformation in the region is taking place, especially in Egypt and in Syria, I do not envisage any major breakthrough vis-a-vis the Palestinian issue, because Palestinians are not living in isolation, they are heavily connected to the region. That’s why everyone is waiting to see what the new rules are and new balance of power to emerge, so that Palestine can also define its position.”
Meanwhile, he mentioned the deep insecurity Israel has felt due to the Arab uprisings that resulted in the ousting of decades-old dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa. As its perceived threats for its national security have peaked due to the new situation. Israel might choose to create conflicts in Palestine in order to direct attention away from democratic transitions, Khanfar warned. He also touted the latest reconciliation efforts between the rival factions of Hamas and Fatah in Palestine, urging the Arab world to increase their efforts to unify the Palestinian groups.
‘Turkey should diversify its energy sources in the Middle East’
Commenting on the recent obstacles Turkey had in purchasing oil and natural gas from Iran, Khanfar emphasized that Turkey should not stay dependent on a certain number of countries in the Middle East in oil, in a region where there is significant political balance shifting. Khanfar advised Turkey to strengthen its cooperation with Libya on oil purchasing, a cooperation which could benefit both countries. Libya is a petroleum-exporting country with the 10th largest proven oil reserves in the world. An agreement that Turkey signed with Libya in April foresees that Libya will be supplying Turkey with approximately 1 million barrels of crude oil per month.
Recently, Turkey increased efforts to diversify its oil imports to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil in order to avoid US sanctions that are expected to take effect in the coming months against countries buying oil from Iran.
There is also an ongoing economic dispute between the two countries over the high price of the natural gas Turkey buys from Iran. Taner Yıldız, Turkey’s energy minister, said in March that the government is getting ready to sue the Middle Eastern country’s administration at an international court of arbitration for a settlement the two countries have not been able to reach on their own.
‘Post-revolution journalism bears responsibility towards Middle East’
Amid political transformation in the Middle East after the Arab Spring, journalism also has to bear some additional responsibilities. Instead of merely covering the facts on the ground, journalism should direct people’s attention to democratic processes rather than political fanaticism, Khanfar indicated, asserting his thoughts under the concept of “post-revolution journalism.”
Given that post-revolution sees important developments on building institutions and drafting constitutions in the newly established states, journalism should move into a more responsible tone to direct society to think about the common good, according to this concept.
“Journalism at this stage should take attention to programs rather than slogans, to rationality rather than emotionality. So journalism, besides carrying facts on the ground should be accurate without being involved in the propaganda of this or that political group and should be responsible in debating and discussing priorities concerning society, and trying to be delicate in presenting issues that are sensitive to society,” Khanfar explained.