Syria regime not the only one accusing Turkey of provoking crisis

A number of international human rights organizations are preparing a file of allegations accusing Turkey of provoking the war in Syria.

al-monitor Samir Aita, a member of the Syrian Democratic Forum, speaks to the media, Cairo, Sept. 18, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany.

Topics covered

turkish policy on syria, turkish foreign policy, syrian opposition, syria civil war, religious minorities, ottoman empire, alawites, ahmet davutoglu

Jan 29, 2014

The Syrian regime conveniently forgets its crimes destroying the country and holds Turkey responsible for the armed uprising. The last to do so was Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who at the Montreux meeting portrayed Turkey as a "terror supporter." Of course, our own Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu responded in even stronger terms.

But sadly, even those in the opposition front who point fingers at Turkey are increasing. Twelve international human rights organizations are compiling a thick file of allegations accusing Turkey of encouraging refugee flow by [previously] declaring 100,000 as the [maximum number of refugees they can accommodate]; of transporting militants from all corners of the world to Syria, including those released from Saudi prisons; of taking part in arms transfers; of providing logistics and military training to armed groups and allowing looting of industrial plants to be sold in Turkey. This file, supported by some politicians who reject armed struggle like Haytham Manna, will be submitted to international courts. I don’t know where all that will lead, but one has to be blind not to see the developments that are making Turkey part of the problem.

'We preserved the mosaic'

For me, three key factors in a chain of mistakes were a “new Ottoman ego” of unawareness of the environment, sectarianism and patronage for the Muslim Brotherhood. Persisting in mistakes generated even more mistakes.

Two anecdotes told to me recently in Germany by Samir Aita, the founder of the Syrian Democratic Forum and an active participant in efforts to set up an opposition front, shed some light on the last three years. The first anecdote was about the Ottoman mosaic that managed to keep diverse religions and races of the region in peace.

When Aita spoke to Turkish officials as the Arabic editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, the issue of Ottomanism cropped up and Aita addressed Davutoglu: “Wait a minute. Stop there. We are the real Ottomans. We are the ones who are preserving the Ottoman mosaic.” Davutoglu was surprised, but Aita continued: “When you massacred Armenians, we opened our arms to them. Similarly, we welcomed the Syriacs. Then the Kurds escaping from massacres came to us. Many Turkmen escaped to Syria for protection. Alawites mistreated in your hands came to us as well. The Syrian people preserved the Ottoman mosaic, not Turkey. We had good relations with Mustafa Kemal [Ataturk] who in 1925 assisted the Syrian revolution against the French occupation. But his successors threatened us with occupation. We took part in your independence. It was the Aleppo army that fought against foreign occupation at Dardanelles under the command of Ataturk. Antioch [Antakya] used to be the reference point for all Eastern churches. But it lost its standing after being annexed by Turkey. You can think and act like Muslim Brothers but you can’t be Ottomans. Syria is the true heir of the Ottoman Empire. Don’t forget the French and British made Syria and Lebanon pay a major part of Ottoman debts.” 

Ford: 'Not Nusayri, Alawite'

One could argue with Aita’s views, but it was this mosaic Syrians were so proud of until the 2011 uprising and subsequent civil war. Those in Turkey who dream of praying at the Umayyad Mosque [in Damascus] before solving our problems with the Kurds, Armenians, and Alawites have to approach the issue from this perspective to understand why their dreams did not materialize.

Aita’s second anecdote was about “Nusayri-minority regime” rhetoric. When  Davutoglu kept on using the label “Nusayri” in a meeting in Cairo with the Syrian opposition, Robert Ford — the former US ambassador to Damascus who is aware of the Alawite allergy to that label — warned our minister: “Not Nusayri. Please refer to them as Alawites.”

There were anti-Bashar-al-Assad Alawites in that meeting. Aita added: “This rhetoric shows how far Davutoglu was removed from the legacy of Ottomans, Ataturk and from the spirit of the independence days. Davutoglu persisted in referring to the Nusayri minority regime. He even used that label in many meetings where there were Alawites strongly resisting Assad.”

This “Nusayri regime" nonsense was a basic Turkish mistake. Those who saw themselves as tutors of the “Syrian revolution” thought that by saying “Nusayri” they were making a distinction between Anatolian and Syrian Alawites and believed that with the uprising of Syrian Sunni majority, the minority regime there will soon be toppled. In the meantime, Arab Alawites in Antakya were being ignored. Anyone familiar with Syria knows that no Alawite in Syria will agree to be called Nusayri. That is actually the practice of Salafist and sectarian groups that want to portray Alawites as non-Muslims.

Bargaining for the Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in Syria, is another cause for the backfiring of Turkey’s Syria policy. When I asked Sami Abu Lebban, a member of the Brotherhood's political bureau, “Was the return of the Brotherhood to Syria and permission for it to get involved in politics a subject of bargaining between the Turkish government and Assad?” He was taken back a bit but said, “Yes.” Wilhelm Langthaler, founder of the International Peace Initiative for Syria, was next to me.

He conveyed to me what Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told him: “When relations were good, Turkey persistently asked us to legalize the Brotherhood and allow it to join politics. Assad refused because to allow religious movements become a part of politics in a secular state would have meant opening the way for sectarianism.”

Langthaler is an Austrian leftist activist who actually favors allowing the Brotherhood to become politically active to thwart religious extremism. Contrary to the Assad regime, he says sidelining the Brotherhood promotes sectarianism.

Langthaler is absolute in thinking that the Brotherhood has to become part of political life. I quoted him to show how widespread the conviction is that Turkey’s sole mission in Syria is the Brotherhood.

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