Turkish Diplomat Discusses Missteps in Syria

In an interview with Taraf, veteran Turkish diplomat Yasar Yakis speaks about Turkey's position toward Syria and his views on recent Kurdish developments in northern Syria.

al-monitor Then-Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis assuming the EU presidency in Ankara, Jan. 30, 2003. Photo by REUTERS.

Topics covered

yasar yakis, syrian, davutoglu, autonomy, assad

Jul 31, 2013


Recent developments in northern Syria were critical points of the war in the country, but also significant for the Kurds seeking autonomy for themselves in the region. Turkish officials struggling to solve their 30-year Kurdish issue followed the events with anxiety and tried to influence them.

We spoke to Yasar Yakis, a founding member of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its first foreign minister. Yakis, who was the longest-serving Turkish diplomat in the Middle East, is currently lecturing at University of Oxford’s St. Antony’s College. What follows are excerpts from the interview: 

Taraf: Did the steps toward a Kurdish region in Syria come as a surprise for you?

Yakis: They were not a surprise. Kurds are described as the largest population in the world without a state. They talk of 40 million Kurds scattered throughout four separate countries. I think they will continue to seek an independent Kurdistan. Their first important step was in Iraq, where they exploited the chaos there to establish an autonomous region. Now they have a similar opportunity in Syria. Their first good luck is the chaos reigning in Syria and the second was Turkey’s blowing up all bridges to Bashar al-Assad. If we hadn’t blown up those bridges we would have been in a stronger position to shape the events in northern Syria

Taraf: Should Turkey have stood with the dictator against the people?

Yakis: No. Our position was the right one, standing with the people. But there was no need to go further and blow up all bridges to Assad. We should have warned the Syria government, but we should not have severed all ties to the regime. There are many counties that support the opposition in Syria but still maintain normal relations with the regime. Our proximity required us to be in that kind of relationship.

Taraf: Couldn’t Turkey forecast a Kurdish entity in Syria?

Yakis: I think Turkey predicted this but after all it is happening in another country. There are limits to Turkey’s involvement. Of course, there could have been mistakes made. I am the Turkish diplomat with longest service in the Middle East. As I speak some Arabic my assessments were inevitably different. In August 2011, I predicted such an eventuality. My friends in the AKP — and they are now in key positions — did not take me seriously. They said Kurds in Syria are not important and anyway they are scattered all over. If that is the way they explained it to the prime minister, then that must have become the foreign policy.

Taraf: You mean Turkey underestimated the strength of the Kurds?

Yakis: The state couldn’t predict it all. The assumption at the beginning was for Assad to fall within a few days. Nobody guessed that he would still be in power and withdraw from the Hassakeh region on his own decision. None of what is happening today was part of the initial assumptions.

Taraf:  How do you assess the foreign minister’s “we won’t accept a de facto situation in Syria” remark?

Yakis: That needs to be discussed. But if “we won’t recognize any de facto situation”  means “we are going to send soldiers” … Until now Turkey has never sent soldiers to other countries without international legitimacy. In this situation, you should not expect a UN decision for the Turkish army to enter Syria. This is the legal aspect of it. Furthermore, if the Turkish army enters there, it will be very difficult to exit. For that army to exit successfully seems impossible to me.

Taraf: Our foreign minister tries appealing to other opposition groups and uses the argument, "The opposition should decide together." Do you think Turkey has the grounds to speak out like this?

Yakis: First, we know that many opposition groups in Syria have distanced themselves from Turkey. Second, those opposition groups could not overthrow the regime. The regime is intact. After Qusair, the regime might well recover Homs and Aleppo. First, it is not wise to see all opposition groups on our side. Moreover don’t think that Syria is only made up of opposition groups.

Taraf: What position should Turkey take about the Kurdish phenomenon in Syria?

Yakis: First, if our Kurdish opening works, that will have beneficial ramifications for Syria as well because the PYD is very close to the PKK. If the process is successful, that will be a game changer for the entire region, not only for Turkey and Syria.

Taraf: What if the process doesn’t succeed?

Yakis: Then, just like we said in Iraq years ago that the Iraqis will decide what Kurds will do in northern Iraq, we will have to say the same for Syria. We must tell the Kurds in northern Syria: "We have no problems with you. But if you serve as accomplices to a terror organization that wants to harm Turkey’s territorial integrity, we can’t get along.” We should tell them what they do there is their business. It will be the Syrians who will decide what will happen in Syria. We have to get along well with the Kurds there.

Taraf: What will be the future of Kurds in the region? An independent state or a confederation?

Yakis: Such a large population has dreams of becoming an independent state. This is a legitimate dream. God alone knows if it will come true. They won’t retreat from their gains in Syria. Even if the Assad regime wins, there is not much it can impose on the Kurds. The process of an independent Kurdistan will continue, slowly.

Taraf: So Kurds have legitimate and achievable dreams?

Yakis: Kurds may be dreaming, but they are not chasing after undoable things.

Taraf: How do you see the future of Syria?

Yakis: All options are worse than others …

Taraf: You mean all options are bad?

Yakis: Unfortunately. Syria is now in a low-intensity proxy war. Some factions are fighting for Russia and Iran; others are fighting for Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Meanwhile the departure of Assad is delayed further and further.

Taraf: How long can this last?

Yakis: Perhaps until they exhaust their blood and are incapable of doing anything. That may take years. Of course there could be a palace coup to topple Assad. Perhaps by increasing the weaponry provided by Saudis and Gulf countries the opposition could be strengthened. That is also a possibility. You have to think in these terms: Whose defeat will be more expensive, the regime’s or the opposition’s? When you think who is likely to fight until the end, you must remember that if the regime falls, Alawites and the regime decision makers won’t be allowed to survive.

Taraf: If Syria is fragmented, what will it look like?

Yakis: Kurds are the ones who can affect this division easily. Then the Alawites, who will be seen as the perpetrators of this entire chaos, will feel the need to withdraw to a homogeneous region of their own. In 1920, when the Ottomans withdrew and the French took over, they set up five autonomous republics: Damascus, Aleppo, Jabal Druze, Alexandretta [modern Iskenderun] and Latakia. Now if the situation comes to that point, one option that comes to mind is for the Alawites to withdraw to Jabal Alawite and set up an autonomous region or a state around Latakia. Can you think that on the eastern extremity of the Syria border there will be a pro-PKK Kurdish state and at the western end an Alawite state that we will have to see as enemy after all that happened? We will have to make tremendous efforts to improve our relations with them. Both states will be on our route to the Middle East and it won’t be possible to reach a future Sunni Syria without going through them.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Tugba Tekerek