Assadism in Turkey and the poverty of conservative intellectuals

Despite the Turkish government’s strict anti-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad »»

Despite the Turkish government’s strict anti-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad policies, there is a large pro-Assad group that seriously influences the Turkish public. Yet Assadism in Turkey is shared by a coalition of secularists and Islamists.

For example, there are marginal Turkish Islamist groups (I should note that they are Sunnis) whose TV channels defend the Assad regime on a daily basis. Similarly, there are Turkish leftist groups who champion Assadism in Turkey in the name of anti-Americanism. In general, Assadists can be divided into three camps: The first group is clearly pro-Assad and endorses Assad’s sectarian and authoritarian regime as normal. They deny the authenticity of the Syrian opposition and argue that there is no opposition in Syria, only anti-government terrorist groups. The second group of Assadists are those who are obsessed with anti-Americanism and thus endorse anyone who seems anti-American. To them, Assad deserves support as he is the man standing against threatening American imperialism. The third group of Assadists is critical of the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan no matter what the issue. However, their hostility toward Erdoğan has transformed them into simple Assadist actors. Most likely they are not aware of this.

Despite the Assadist wave among the elites of Turkey, the public hates Assad and his oppressive regime almost entirely. However, several distinguished intellectuals have advised me to read Assad’s recent interview with the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet as a history lesson! So, how is it possible to have such an Assadist bloc while the Turkish public is critical of Assad’s oppressive regime? I have a very simple answer to this: Most Turkish secular intellectuals (including the Kemalists) have a leftist or socialist ideological background. Their background is the key to understanding their approach to several global issues, such as the Syrian one. Interestingly, these intellectuals, who are proud of Western values in domestic politics, hate the Western world in global politics. To many of them, Turkey’s cooperation with the US is worse than what Assad is doing to innocent people. Mostly they employ a tautological discourse such as, “Assad is bad but the US is bad too,” which results in political inaction.

On the other hand, it is a shame for conservatives, including the Erdoğan government, that those former Marxists, Leninists or Maoists continue to dominate the Turkish public sphere. I am not of course calling on the government to purge the leftist intellectuals. But there is a problem: The dominance of the left breeds serious intellectual illusions. A dictator like Assad can be presented as a hero to the Turkish public despite the vast majority of people thinking differently. Thus, in a broader context, the Syrian crisis has again proven that the Turkish conservatives -- both the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the Hizmet movement -- have a serious problem of intellectual representation. Despite their grass roots strength, they are weak in terms of intellectual representation.

The influence of pro-Assad intellectuals in Turkey is a clear lesson to conservative political actors. Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu has recently complained of certain criticisms of his Syrian policy from various intellectual circles. However, instead of criticizing left-leaning or Kemalist pro-Assad intellectuals, conservative actors should criticize themselves, in order to understand why they have failed on this serious issue. Indeed, democracy makes room for the perspectives of contending intellectuals. And it is a good sign for Turkish democracy to observe pro-Assad intellectuals in Turkey amidst a very serious political crisis with Syria. However, being intellectually underrepresented, the Turkish conservatives may face further difficulties in defending their policies before the Turkish public.