Turkey’s Neighbors Headed for Crisis

Article Summary
In this interview Dr. Mensur Akgun, an expert on Turkish foreign policy and Middle Eastern politics, explores regional developments in Syria, Iraq and Iran and how they will impact Turkey. In Iraq, he fears the outbreak of a civil war and the disintegration of the state. In Syria, the worst-case scenario for Turkey would be a protracted power transfer that would limit opportunities for the opposition and particularly the Free Syrian Army, which Turkey has been hosting within its borders. Interview by Nese Duzel.

Dr. Mensur Akgun, a professor at Kultur University and the director of the Global Political Trends Institute, closely monitors Turkish foreign policy and developments in the region. He recently spoke to Taraf’s Nese Duzel.

Taraf  The turmoil in the Middle East has reached our borders. Syria is on the verge of a civil war and the Iraqi Prime Minister ordered an arrest warrant for [Iraqi] Vice President [Tariq] Hashimi. What is going on in Iraq?

Agkun  Iraq is on the road to partition. This crisis broke out the day after the withdrawal of the US troops. It seems less and less possible to resolve these issues while maintaining territorial integrity. However, the partition of Iraq will result in catastrophic instability.

Taraf  How will this partition occur?

Agkun  It is likely that a Sunni state in the middle, a Kurdish state in the north and a Shia state in the south will emerge in the near future. This separation will be quite tumultuous. It is likely that armed clashes between the Shiites and the Sunnis will break out.

Taraf  What about the Kurds? How will they position themselves [in this conflict]?

Agkun  They will probably manage to isolate themselves from this upheaval. The roots of this conflict do not stem from the Kurds. The major problem is between the Shiites and Sunnis. Nevertheless the Kurdish region, due to its unstable [power] structure, will not be immune to conflict when civil strife takes hold of Iraq. There is also a regional dimension to this conflict. Iran would be willing to involve itself in this sectarian strife, and it borders Iraq.

Taraf  Would Iran benefit from the partition of Iraq?

Agkun  Iran is facing pressure from the US, Israel and even Turkey because of its plans to develop nuclear weapons and maintain its hegemony in the region. Instability in Iraq and the partition of its territory would serve Iran’s interests. In this context, Iran might be looking for a way to exert its influence on the Iraqi Shia population. [If it is successful,] there might be a severe Shia-Sunni split.

Taraf  What will happen to the Kurds?

Agkun  No group in Iraq has military capabilities that match those of the Kurds. Therefore, it seems that the Kurds will remain untouched in this struggle.

Taraf  So, the military power of the Kurds outweighs that of the Shiites or Sunnis? In this case do Kurds need Turkey in terms of protection?

Agkun  The Kurds [in Iraq] don’t need Turkey for security reasons, but they definitely rely on Turkey for economic development and prosperity. The Kurds have the capacity to protect themselves. They have a militia that operates like a regular army — a deterrent against any possible assault. Now there is no mighty Iraqi army — like the one of Saddam — that can attack the Kurds.

Besides, Turkey is the only state in the region with which the Kurds can form an alliance. The same applies to Turkey. We shouldn’t perceive Northern Iraq as tantamount to the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]. Northern Iraq will be our gate to Middle East. It will also serve as a buffer zone between the instability in the region and Turkey. It is Northern Iraq that will protect us from this turmoil. Therefore stability in Northern Iraq means stability in Turkey.

Taraf  What will be the consequences of this conflict for Turkey?

Agkun  First, there will certainly be economic losses. Each year around 45,000 trucks transport Turkish goods through Syria to the different parts of the Middle East. Now we are stuck! It is almost impossible to carry [transport our goods] through Syria now. Which route will we use to trade? Iraq is the only alternative route. What will happen if a civil war breaks out in Iraq? Iraq is already a highly unstable country, but this will get even worse if civil war breaks out. If Iraq follows Iran and Syria [in closing its borders], Turkey’s south will be closed off completely. In this case, Turkey will need to find alternative routes and methods to continue its trade with the region. That’s why Turkey is now attempting to reach the Middle Eastern market through Egypt via sea transport.

Taraf  Why are the Kurds putting so much effort into maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq?

Agkun  Because if they do otherwise, or do anything to damage the territorial integrity of Iraq, they will be the ones trapped under the debris. All Arabs would immediately unite against the Kurds. However, if Iraq disintegrates for reasons unrelated to the Kurds, Turkey will be obliged to recognize a Kurdish state. But if the Kurds decide to declare independence on their own, they would face trouble from the Turkish state. As a matter of fact, the Kurds are being very watchful of the instability in Syria.

Taraf  Why?

Agkun  They are wary that the wave haunting the Arab world has turned into a tsunami. They are afraid that this tsunami will reach them. They feel that even if the Assad regime is toppled, Syria will be prone to great instability. It is still unknown whether the opposition group organized under the Turkish umbrella [and within its territory] would take full command of post-Assad Syria. In the Arab Spring, regimes are overthrown in the Middle East but democratic transition does not take place. This is because these countries do not have a consolidated democracy culture like Turkey.

Taraf  What is the stance of Turkey regarding Iraq?

Agkun  Turkey is doing its best to remain neutral to each and every ethnic and religious group in the region, and treat them equally. Turkey keeps contact with every actor and is advocating for territorial integrity and stability in Iraq.

Taraf  The armed revolt in Syria is growing. Is Syria headed toward a civil war?

Agkun  Yes, Syria is on the brink of a civil war. The Syrian opposition is divided into two groups. The first is comprised of unarmed street protestors. The second group is composed of those who defected from the Syrian army. Turkey is somehow shielding this group, which calls itself the Free Syrian Army. It has been stated that this militia is composed of 20 battalions. Turkey has neither declared support for this militia nor denied it. This is not a game. We have a 911km-long border with Syria. Every year, around 45,000 trucks travel through Syria. Turkey has a vested interest in the future of this country. If the Free Syrian Army takes power in the future, Turkey’s relations will be with them. Therefore, it is much wiser to cooperate with them now, rather than postpone relations until they take power in the future. Meanwhile, it is rumored that Qatar is also providing arms to the Syrian opposition.

Taraf  Who is supporting Assad?

Agkun  He is backed by a strong Ba’athist regime similar to the Kemalist state structure in Turkey. A single party has been holding power for decades. The military, judiciary, clientelist bourgeoisie and state-controlled press are all working for the regime. It is clear that this is a regime of consensus headed by a weak figurehead — Assad.  

Taraf  Is Turkey preparing for war with Syria? Will Turkey declare war on Syria?

Agkun  I don’t think the Ba’ath regime will dare to support the PKK to the point of antagonizing and frustrating Turkey. In fact, even today Syria has not cut its trade ties with Turkey. Although Turkey has imposed economic embargos, Syria has only increased import tariffs. The biggest danger awaiting Turkey regarding Syria is the scenario of a protracted transfer of power. [This is a possibility] since the Syrian people are urging for a [geographical] amnesty zone. If this transition period is protracted, Turkey might be dragged into the problem. You will remember that around one million people fled Iraq to Turkey in 1991 after Saddam crushed a Kurdish rebellion there. If there is a massive Syrian migration like this one, Turkey will carry out a military intervention to contain it to the Syrian borders. Turkey has already announced its willingness to intervene under these circumstances.

Taraf  So in this scenario Turkey would start a war with Syria?  

Agkun  If this is the case, Turkish intervention is to be expected. If the Syrian army steps into the safe zone, Turkey will launch air strikes. Needless to say this means defense spending and the burden of military expenditures will increase.

Taraf  How will the PKK be affected by these developments?

Agkun  These developments will negatively impact the PKK. Northern Iraq is no longer a safe haven for the PKK. Syrian support will end with the overthrow of the Assad regime. The PKK will lose its contacts in the Bekaa [a region of Lebanon] and it is possible that [some of its people] will flee Syria.

Taraf  Can Assad retain his rule despite all of this opposition?

Agkun  For the regime to survive, Assad must be sacrificed. I think that he wants to leave, so it seems that he won’t last long. As a matter of fact, this fits into the Arab League’s plans for Syria as well. A military intervention in Syria is not on the agenda. Assad will be ousted by peaceful means. A smooth and steady transition in Syria and the protection of its territorial integrity would be the optimal scenario for Turkey. Otherwise we will have to tackle immense instability, sectarian conflagration and escalating violence in the region.

Taraf  What will happen in Syria in a post-Assad era?

Agkun  There will be a phase of transition. The regime will appoint somebody it trusts. A new constitution will be enacted, and equality between different parties will be maintained. Assad promised to fulfill all of these demands, yet he was unable to. In short, the Ba’ath regime's base of power will be shattered. The Middle East will never be the same again. And when I say the Middle East, I am including the Gulf as well. The Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. will also feel the effects of this wave of change.

Taraf  How will Iran respond to all these [changes]?

Agkun  Iran will continue to play the Shia card. In fact, it will intensify its efforts to maintain its hegemony on the Shia population throughout the region. Syria will no longer be an unconditional ally for Iran. Therefore Iran will need to rely on its Shi’ism [to project its influence in the region]. If it can succeed in building nuclear weapons, it will gain a shield of immunity. It is impossible to [analyze] the region without taking the Iranian factor into consideration.

Taraf  How is Israel positioning itself?

Agkun  The mood in Israel about the Arab Spring has been somber from the very beginning. Israel cannot help but worry about the deteriorating security environment it faces. It faces dwindling diplomatic capabilities in light of the revolts within its neighboring countries, such as Egypt and Syria. This wave of uncertainty bothers Israel, as it no longer has any known enemies or allies. Israeli-Egyptian relations were stabilized by the Camp David accord. Yet now, a new [system of governance] that will be accountable to the people is emerging in Egypt. Therefore neither Egypt nor Jordan can remain mute when Israel attacks Gaza. In short, Israel cannot rely on [the complacence] of its ex-allies anymore.

Taraf  What about Turkish-Iranian relations?

Agkun  The outlook for relations between Turkey and Iran is not very promising. Iran wants nuclear weapons and Turkey is a member of NATO. Therefore, we perceive these weapons as threats. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have built a missile shield in the southeast region. If Iran equips itself with nuclear weapons, which is likely, this will pose a serious threat to Turkey. In this case, Turkey will need to take certain measures, such as deploying troops or building [additional] missile shields against any potential Iranian attacks.

Taraf  So does this mean Turkey will be spending more on its military expenditures? For years, Turkey and Greece competed over military expenditures. Do you think that an even bigger challenge is awaiting Turkey in this regard?

Agkun  This competition is inevitable. Iran will not give up its nuclear plans and therefore Turkey is forced to increase its military capacities. Turkey will not limit itself to NATO protection. It will rather resort to developing its own missile shield. Turkey will invest in military assets before it builds new schools or hospitals. Resources will be allocated to the military unnecessarily. This is inevitable, as we feel highly insecure about [Iran’s] nuclear weapons. It doesn’t matter whether Iran fires at Israel or Turkey. You have to hit a ballistic missile as soon as it is launched. Additionally, you may be aware that there are rumored to be around thirty nuclear warheads in Turkey.

Taraf  Since when does Turkey have nuclear weapons?

Agkun  Turkey has had these weapons since the Cold War, though it should be emphasized that Turkey did not develop these weapons. Turkey has been hosting NATO tactical nuclear warheads on its soil because of the deterrent value that they held against the threat posed by the nuclear and conventional weapons of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Certain squadrons in the Turkish Air Force have the capacity to use these weapons.

Taraf  What will happen in 2012?

Agkun  The wave of democratization — the Arab Spring — will continue, and new countries will succumb to this wave. The instability in Syria and Iraq will impact Turkey negatively. This [instability] will be accompanied by Iran’s persistence in acquiring nuclear weapons. All these [developments] are bound to have steep economic costs for Turkey. [Economic] demand in the region will decrease significantly and the market will shrink as the routes to the Middle East market are blocked. Turkish foreign policy should return to its former strategy.

Taraf  What was the former strategy of Turkey, how is this different from the current one?

Agkun  Turkey used to be perceived as a wielder of soft power. Nowadays Turkey has increasingly relied on its military power. Turkey should keep itself above the fray of the region’s problems and again assume the constructive role of negotiator in all these crises. Turkey used to solve problems in the region; now it has ended up becoming a part of these problems. For example, the Turkish government started to employ a very harsh tone on the Cyprus issue [Cyprus being divided between those who hold Turkish and Greek allegiances] and it prioritized military options to solve this problem. Turkey adopted the attitude of a bully with statements such as “the security of Mediterranean is our job.” Later on, Turkey became engaged in a rhetorical debate with France [after its legislation on the Armenian genocide]. This debated had turned into a geopolitical competition. All of these things indicate that Turkey has failed to maintain its strategy [of “zero problems with neighbors”].

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