Syria, Turkey and the Middle East: To Intervene Or Not To Intervene?

To Intervene or Not to Intervene? Is That the Question?

Clashes in Syria between the rebels and the Assad regime are growing in violence every day. While the country is burning in the flames of civil war, neither Germany nor other European countries look favourably upon military intervention. If we bear in mind that things did not go to plan in Afghanistan and that intervention in Iraq not only had no legitimate grounds from the beginning but also brought about a long and bloody chaos, this reluctance is not hard to understand. The preference for non-military alternatives becomes even more understandable when we look at the matter from the perspective of domestic policy, and consider the upcoming federal elections in Germany.

On the other hand, because of the absence of sanctions due to the will, or more precisely the lack of will, of the West, for months Syria has been displaying, with the utmost ruthlessness, exactly what a cruel dictator is capable of.

In recent days, the civil war in Syria has spread to the country’s capital, Damascus. Some experts claim that since the rebels control a larger area than the Assad regime does, the situation has reached a turning point. Even if this claim is true, there are concerns that clashes, massacres and the exodus of Syrians will continue for months. According to figures from the United Nations, the civil war has so far caused 15,000 deaths – the same as in the war in Libya, where intervention took place despite the Russian and German veto. As Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for The Independent, said in February, “Egypt was not Tunisia; Bahrain was not Egypt; Yemen was not Bahrain; Libya was not Yemen. And Syria is very definitely not Libya.

Still, it must be stated that even though the West has not taken any military action against events in Syria, it has not remained completely silent. For over a year Western politicians have been increasingly expressing their demands to Assad. But Assad, as the saying goes, turns a blind eye. Faced with the situation in Syria, the politics of the West seem to be radical in terms of discourse but ineffective in terms of action. What’s more, the UN’s attempts at conciliation go no further than ineffective war diplomacy.

All of this does not, of course, prove that intervention in Syria would be more appropriate than non-intervention and it is impossible to ignore the blood and tears that international military intervention would bring. However, when faced with the brutal realities of life, there is nothing to be gained from excuses. Those who choose non-intervention must accept the fact that the events that would take place following an illegitimate or unsuccessful military invasion may well still occur without any intervention.

The clashes in Syria are becoming increasingly violent and the number of deaths is growing every day. The West’s position as a helpless observer, along with the powerlessness of the UN to put an end to the situation only works in favour of the dictator Assad. Since the possibility of a solution through the UN has been prevented by the vetoes of China and Russia, the German government claims that military intervention would bring the situation to an impasse and, to demonstrate its reaction, has been increasing its cooperation with the group known as the Friends of the Syrian People. Furthermore, it wants China and Russia to abandon their protection of Assad. It wants Assad to be tried in the international criminal court, and frequently accuses him of having committed genocide and war crimes. But as Germany is not as close to the region as Turkey, it takes on no responsibility beyond sending messages of good faith and calling for an end to the violence. I will give two examples of this. Firstly, Claudia Roth, co-chair of Alliance 90/The Greens, recently called upon the German government to accept Syrian refugees into the country. There is currently a reluctance towards accepting refugees from Syria, and the government, stating that such a move would not be appropriate at this point, makes do with giving financial support to refugees in other countries. Secondly, in a recent newspaper interview Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Guido Westerwelle said that he approached US-Turkey talks on establishing a no-fly zone over Syria with caution, or even with reluctance, due to the possibility of the violence spreading to the entire region (Tagesspiegel, 19 August 2012). However, regardless of what the foreign powers want, an extremely important issue is what kind of government the opponents of the regime and the Syrian people want. In developing countries, and moreover in countries that are undergoing a new series of political developments, foreign intervention usually has disastrous effects. For this reason the people of Syria must be able to freely choose how they want to be governed and this choice should not be subject to the will of foreign powers and their interests.

Show Me Your Interests and I’ll Show You Your Strategic Partner

The US wants to prevent the spread of Islamist regimes because it sees them a threat in the same way as it did communism during the Cold War. In a very similar way to the containment plan of the Cold War, this war is turning into a symbolic struggle involving the interests of the US and Russia (Eric Reissler, ResearchTurkey, August 2012)[1].

Today Turkey, just like many other countries such as the US, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, has investments in Syria. These countries are therefore competing to influence the outcome of the civil war there. In the current situation, a regime that includes Assad cannot realistically be expected to secure stability for the country again. It is obvious that the US, with the lessons it learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, favours a stable and secular regime and will not support an extremist Islamic regime. On the other hand, we should not expect the Islamic fundamentalist groups fighting alongside the rebel forces to renounce their interests if (or more likely when) a new regime is established.

Because of its proximity to the region, the great powers of world politics are in close consultation with Turkey.  There is no doubt that telephone conversations between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan include discussions of the form that the new regime in Syria will take. Similarly, we know that Minister Westerwelle, the driving force of the EU, and his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoğlu are discussing the same topic. The US wants to contain the spread of Islamic fundamentalist regimes in Syria (and in fact in the whole world) and views radical Islam as a threat similar to that of the spread of the “enemy” of communism during the Cold War. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) regime in Turkey is the most acceptable form for the US in a state regime that includes secular elements.

Germany, on the other hand, considers Saudi Arabia as a strategic partner and therefore finds itself opposing the Syrian government. We can identify three main reasons for this. Firstly, in a time of tense relations between Iran and the West, Saudi Arabia puts an end to the West’s concerns about energy supply by promising to produce more petrol. Secondly, Saudi Arabia buys weapons from Germany beyond what it really needs to protect itself (the purchase of 200 Leopard tanks was really a request for support in the opposition of Syria). Finally, Saudi Arabia gives information to Western intelligence services.

Furthermore, the German police force provides training for Saudi border police, and Saudi border protection technology has been exported from Germany. Although the news that German police received salary payments from the Saudi king through the Franco-German weapons company EADS put the German Federal Ministry of the Interior in a difficult position for a while, in reality it changed nothing. (Peter Blechschmidt, “Hart an der Grenze”, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 14 July 2011).

The violent suppression of the Arab Spring by “trained” Saudi police in neighbouring (Shiite) Bahrain and the continued pressure on and torture of the opposition there has not led to any international protest.

If we look at this situation from a German point of view it can be summarised as follows: if we have to choose between two undemocratic regimes, we prefer to support the richest one and the one that can buy the most weapons from us.

AKP Handles the Begging Bowl

Knowing that installing missile shields in Malatya would be difficult to explain to its own voters, the AKP played the Jewish enemy card in order to change the political agenda, saying that Turkish warships would escort future aid flotillas to Gaza. One month after this announcement, an aid ship destined for Gaza was pulled over by Israeli security forces, causing international unease. However, the Turkish government chose to ignore the situation, turning this sense of unease into one of surprise.

During the month of Ramadan, fearing its voters’ preoccupation with how the people of Gaza would break their fast, the AKP turned the persecution of Muslims in the Burmese state of Rakhine, a much easier area to reach, into state propaganda and produced advertising campaigns using tax revenues. This is an example of the methods used by the AKP in running its policies and of how it routinely uses smoke screens to shape the political agenda.

The AKP is now known internationally for using this tactic. Many factors should be taken into account in the debate over Syria and the stance of Turkey. Experts on the Middle East, with whom I discussed this issue, point out that as well as the subject of energy routes there is also a sectarian approach. An August 2012 edition of The Economist rightly stated that Prime Minister Erdoğan is focused on this topic of sectarianism.

The fact that energy routes to the Mediterranean must run either through Iran, Iraq and Syria or through Turkey require Europe’s neutrality. However, from the point of view of the US it is important to break the anti-American Shiite axis.  On this issue the AKP believes that its interests overlap with those of the US in two areas: firstly, that there should be no other alternatives to energy routes to the Mediterranean; secondly, it wants to win the sectarian war on its own terms, with the help of the US and the cooperation of Saudi Arabia.

Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face

Experts say that Prime Minister Erdoğan’s knowledge of history is limited to legends and that he likens himself to Sultan Selim I, nicknamed “The Grim”. These same experts point out that this is precisely where the danger lies for Turkey. Shortly after the US invaded Iraq, the US held the opening of the railway system in the presence of representatives of different religious sects, and since Iraq is now virtually split into three, experts say the same thing could happen in Turkey.

The AKP government, which has often stressed the Syrian people’s right to self-determination, has now reached a point where it appears to be against the self-determination of the growing Kurdish population in the north of Syria. However, it has also indicated that, as was the case for Iraq, it would not be able to oppose a green light from the US to establish real autonomy there.

Experts also state that just as the US used Saddam Hussein against Iran and Osama bin Laden against Russia before eliminating them, the same outcome could also be true for the AKP.

AKP is Willing to Make Do

If we look at this from Europe’s point of view, experts state that it is important for Europe to end its dependency on Russia for natural gas. They agree that it makes little difference whether the natural gas from Azerbaijan and Central Asia is delivered through Turkey or through Iran-Iraq-Syria and that the best solution is for both systems to run in parallel.

It is completely natural for the US and Europe to protect their interests in the Middle East. However, there is an obvious danger that those who are trying to fight their own sectarian war with the help of the US (the AKP) will cut off their nose to spite their face and make do with a sultanate and caliphate limited to Istanbul.

What is to Be Done?

There are different answers to this question but the situation still merits analysis. In order for Turkey to escape from these troubles as intact as possible, secular democrats, Alevis and other ethnic and cultural minorities need to develop their relations with the US. If even a party like the AKP can develop good relations with the US, then these groups can (without question) also develop such relations. This analysis could well give rise to debate. In order to become one of the powers that determine the outcome of this mess, the US, the EU, Russia and China are all playing the game with the meticulous calculations of a chess player. However, the winner will not be the player who thinks just one move ahead, but the one who thinks several moves ahead.

Mr. Memet Kılıç, Federal MP for the German Green Party

Please cite this publication as follows:

Kılıç, Memet (December, 2012), “Syria, Turkey and the Middle East: To Intervene Or Not To Intervene?”, Vol. I, Issue 10, pp.11-16, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=2410)

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