No other foreign policy issue has splintered the Turkish public and the Turkish political scene as much as the Syrian issue. Even as it deliberates the mistakes of the ruling party, the Turkish opposition cannot come up with a consistent or rational position. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), although blessed with advisers as experienced as former diplomats, still speaks with a language that is stuck in the 1970s.
Kilicdaroglu’s words give off the impression that he is not aware of the powerful dynamics of the Arab world that might supersede those rooted in Iran or Turkey. He doesn’t see that there is nothing to gain by accusing the government of being a subcontractor for the US or Israel. He can’t understand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not and should not have a future.
The government, on the other hand, despite all of its efforts has found itself unable to persuade the public that it is on the right track. Our rulers suffer from a credibility gap that is made worse by their complete lack of self-criticism and by the fact that they seem unable to acknowledge that they might have made a mistake. And, just like the opposition, the government does not have a sensible approach to a post-Assad Syria.
A foreign ministry official briefed journalists in Istanbul to help the public better understand the situation. He defined the Syrian crisis as an issue vital to Turkey’s national interest. He then explained why Turkey always seems to be in the forefront of every aspect of this crisis: “Turkey is at the front not because of its free choice, but because of its geographical location. Stability in Syria is a security issue for Turkey. The same can be said for Iraq as well. There can be nothing more natural for us to be concerned with than the stability of these countries.”
Turkey is like those many other countries that previously lived worry-free thanks to the stability provided by neighboring dictators. Now that this stability is gone, and seeing how the people in these countries are rising up against their rulers, Turkey seeks to replace these dictators with democratic regimes. This explains why we destroyed our intimate relationship with the Assad regime. According to one official, “We have problems with Assad, not with Syria.”
This is a stance that can be summarized as: “If a nation rebels against its regime and sustains that rebellion by risking their lives, Turkey’s stance will be clear.”
Although the developments in Syria and Iraq have been criticized from a human rights angle, the determining factor of Turkish policy is realpolitik. In Syria and Iraq, realpolitik overlap with ethical and humanist values. In places such as Bahrain, Yemen and Sudan, realpolitik dominates and shapes our attitudes.
The official said: “Today, the situation in the region around Turkey resembles the geopolitical earthquake of 1979 [a reference to the Iranian revolution, Saddam Hussein’s coming to power and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan]. Back then, with our limited means, we observed those developments from afar, and had to cope with the results. Today we are a country that can contribute toward the shaping of a new order, and safeguard Turkey’s interests.”
In this new order, Turkey believes it is wrong to polarize sectarian and ethnic identities. The foreign ministry official said the top priority now is to persuade Russia that the status quo cannot be maintained. He added that Iran is beginning to realize that it has been betting on the wrong horse. He said that in any case, losing Syria does not mean that Iran will lose Iraq or Lebanon.
His last message was perhaps the most important: Turkey does not see a military operation as essential at this time. But, should hundreds of thousands of people show up at our borders, Turkey might think of establishing a buffer zone.