DOĞU ERGİL

Reciprocity

The downing of a Turkish military plane by Syria has carried the conflict between the two countries to a new level.

This statement may surprise many Turkish people. Were we at odds with Syria as a nation, or was it our prime minister’s harsh rhetoric that conveyed his disappointment with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Assad’s government for not complying with his advice to democratize the despotic regime? But despotic regimes do not bend. They simply break.

There are several questions that come to mind as to why Turkey’s relations with Syria have soured. The Assad family is as dictatorial now as they were when they usurped power in 1970. But our politicians saw no harm in developing congenial relations with the men they condemn today. What has changed?

There seem to be several factors motivating the Turkish government’s zeal for regime change in Syria. Turkey’s foreign policy-makers believe their country can revive its mandate in these previously Ottoman-ruled territories. Such influence would enhance Turkey’s claim to be a play-maker in its region. This wish has been openly declared. What is not acknowledged is the fear that an autonomous Kurdish region born out of Syria may radically alter the status quo in the Middle East. The reasoning goes as follows.

The weakened ruling Assad cabal, under duress, has most probably negotiated a deal with the Kurds of Syria whom it has oppressed for so long. That is why the Kurds have not joined the armed opposition. So far, this strategy has succeeded -- but at what price? Learned opinion is in the direction of affording the Kurds virtual autonomy for now. That is why the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) immediately deployed several thousand militias to safeguard this newly won position, and the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party has begun to show its influence in the politics of the region adjacent to the Turkish border.

An alternative scenario is as follows: If the opposition forces succeed in overthrowing the Assad government, the PKK will be one of the beneficiaries of the situation and will never let go of its grip on the north with a window to the Mediterranean Sea. This is the dream plan of the “united and greater Kurdistan” utopia.

Consider that in the case of a breakdown of the existent regime, there may be several states born out of the sectarian and ethnic composition of the country. One of them could be Kurdish and the other made up of Syrian Alevis (Nusayri) or Christians and upper-middle-class Sunnis, mainly opting for a secular regime. The rest of the country would be composed of the Sunni majority, most probably ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood.

This division would definitely have cross-border effects. The Sunnis of Syria would possibly form alliances with the disillusioned Sunnis of Iraq. Lebanese sects may find people like them in divided Syria with whom they can come together to create new political entities. Hence, a dismantled Syria may be serious factor in changing the political landscape of the Middle East. Turkey wants to be a card dealer at this gambling table.

The second question is about what reciprocal action Turkey may take to the recent downing of its jet by Syria. Let me play the devil’s advocate here and ask what would be a reciprocal or proper retaliatory action if the government of a neighboring country wanted to overthrow the government and change the regime of another? Probably the Syrian ruling elite and a part of its population is asking the same question.

Fortunately, there is an easy answer: There ought to be a human response to a ruthless regime that observes no limits in suppressing popular demands and basic human rights, including the right to life. The problem is where to draw the line of deterrence. Trying to stop the tyrant and help the opposition develop the capacity to form an alternative, legitimate power base is the duty of all nations. But siding with particular factions in the conflict may reduce the chances of the outside actor being fair in the present and effective in the post-conflict phase.

For reconciliation in the post-Assad period, the various people that make up Syria will have to live together in a power-sharing arrangement. A partisan outside actor that has supported one or more of the factions and not others during the internal strife may be left out of the future of the restored country. In this case, less than Turkey, Russia, which has kept away direct foreign involvement and has links with all internal and external actors, may have a bigger say in the restructuring of Syria. So, more than being an active agent of regime change and a supporter of certain sides, the role of the peacemaker and a generous agent for humanitarian aid is more suitable for Turkey if it really wants to be a dealer in post-revolutionary Syria and the Middle East.

2012-07-01