In June 2012, the United Nations finally declared that a civil war was taking place in Syria. Indeed, for many observers, and certainly those in the Western media, it was just a matter of time before Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would flee and the entire Syrian regime would fall.
By Mustafa Akyol
This has been a terrible week for Turkey. Riots hit dozens of cities, mostly in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, leading to more than 30 deaths. Most protestors were Kurdish nationalists mobilized by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a political party that acts as the unofficial arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist group. They were angry at the government for not helping their brethren in the northern Syrian city of Kobane, who have been hopelessly resisting the ongoing onslaught of the so-called “Islamic State” of Iraq and Syria (ISIL). But the protesters’ anger, and their wanton violence, didn’t help much in convincing the Turkish public that Kurdish fighters in Kobane must indeed be supported.
For most Western observers, the stance of the Turkish government in all this mess is incomprehensible. Why, they wonder, is Turkey doing nothing to help the heroic defenders of Kobane against the brutal jihadist hordes. The answer often comes by concluding that the Turkish government must have some sympathy for ISIL, due to its Islamist sentiments and anti-Kurdish biases. The reality, however, is a bit more complicated. There is plenty of evidence to conclude that Ankara does see ISIL as a threat, and does not want to see its dominance extend beyond its southern borders.
However, Ankara has two other preoccupations that are not shared by Western capitals: First, the armed Kurds in Syria, which are ultimately an extension of the PKK. Second, the Bashar al-Assad regime, which Ankara still sees as the mother of all evil in Syria. But are these considerations right? Well, yes and no. As for the Kurds, Turkey’s decades-old concern with the PKK cannot be trashed out overnight, especially in the face of a public which still sees the group as Turkey’s main enemy. Yet still, this is the same PKK with which the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has been carrying out a much-hailed “peace process.”
So, for the sake of both the process and Turkey’s domestic peace and stability, Ankara must be more amenable to the pro-PKK faction in Syria, which is now fighting for its survival. As for al-Assad, it is true that his regime is evil, and deserves all sorts of condemnation, but Ankara must realize that now ISIL is an independent threat, with its own mania and bloodlust. Therefore the we-will-not-fight-ISIL-unless-al-Assad-is-also-fought mantra should be left aside, and ISIL must be confronted as a threat of its own, not as a mere “symptom” of the al-Assad disease. But what does this all practically mean? It doesn’t mean that Turkey has to send its tanks over the Syrian border to help defend Kobane, as some have been suggesting. Even the Kurds are not asking for that. What they ask is rather for a “corridor” inside Turkey to connect Iraqi Kurdistan and Kobane to carry fighters, arms, and supplies, and they should get that immediately.
Ankara should stop interrogating them about how close they are to al-Assad and other trivia, at a time when they are facing ultimate destruction. Meanwhile, the leaders of Turkey’s Kurdish movement must see that they cannot convince the Turks that they are not a “terrorist organization” by terrorizing streets, vandalizing property and lynching opponents. Had they been wiser, they could have organized non-violent demonstrations, which could have helped more people realize the tragedy in Kobane and Turkey’s moral responsibility to help more.
In 2012, the Syrian civil war was very much a home-grown affair. In a one-star, cigarette smoke-filled hotel room in Antakya I met with a Damascus businessman who was busily arranging arms deals on multiple cell phones. At one point, he jokingly tossed me a cell phone and said that if I really wanted to find out what was happening in Syria I should speak to the fellow on the other end of the line who was about to go into battle. At the other extreme, I met with a Syrian-American in a rented apartment who had come to Turkey on his own initiative with money and supplies for the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Two years ago, the Assad regime was definitely on the defensive, but rumors of its imminent demise had been greatly exaggerated. At the same time, many countries believed they could safely cheer on the opposition from the sidelines without getting too involved themselves. Yet, if the experts in Washington and elsewhere had taken the time to visit the Syrian government’s official website in 2012, Iran’s Press TV or read reports from journalists embedded with the Syrian military, the inclination to so easily write off the Syrian regime would have quickly faded.
For example, every defection from the Syrian government, especially when high-ranking military officers fled, was seen as a clear sign the regime was about to collapse. However, the defections mostly served to undermine the opposition not strengthen it. With Col. Raid al-Assad running the FSA there was a reasonable chance of some success. But, as more senior officers arrived in Turkey, they wanted to be in charge. Many of these generals had little to no fighting experience, were too old to lead or were simply civilians with some sort of military rank. There was a good deal of fanfare in Ankara when two more senior Syrian colonels arrived in Turkey, but I later found out they were dentists.
As the Assad regime slowly rallied in 2013 and the United States canceled plans to launch air strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons, the mood in the Syrian opposition became decidedly gloomy. In October 2013, opposition representatives asked me point-blank why the West had abandoned them. More foreign fighters were entering Syria from Turkey they added — foreigners who were more interested in establishing an Islamic caliphate than fighting the Assad regime. This view of foreign fighters was vastly different from what I had been told the year before. In 2012, foreign fighters had been welcome. They were, said a member of the opposition I met in Reyhanlı, Turkey, the “boots on the ground” that America and others refused to supply.
The amount of support Turkey has given to foreign fighters, and specifically to extremist elements, remains a topic for debate. The Turkish government, like everyone else, had expected the Assad regime to fall quickly — although no one had a plan for what might happen once he left (much like the situation in Libya). Ironically, it’s very possible that if Assad had been toppled, the security situation in Syria, and by extension Iraq, could be far worse than it is right now. Nevertheless, with the United States refusing to embroil itself in Syria and the opposition falling apart, Turkey was left to fend for itself.
However, the international community has finally come together, not to get rid of Assad, but to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now called the Islamic State (IS), instead. Speaking of the IS, what were they thinking by taking on the FSA, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian regime, the Iraqi government and the United States all at the same time? The IS also took 46 Turkish citizens who had been stationed at the Turkish consulate in Mosul hostage and held them for over three months. Moreover, what motivated the IS to consider capturing Mosul, a city of 2 million whose citizens quickly demanded they turn the power back on and pick up the garbage? You simply can’t do all this and run a caliphate with only 30,000 fighters. Not for long, that is.
In fact, the group has made countless strategic errors that have been overshadowed by a few tactical victories against weak and disorganized opponents. Why could they not have introduced their ideas more slowly in the hope of maintaining popular support? Why behead foreigners unless, as an organization, your ultimate goal is to invite martyrdom? As a result of all this, even the Qatari and Saudi governments are bombing the very people they were likely funding not that long ago — no doubt the biggest cheers in the region were coming from Syria’s military headquarters in Damascus when this happened.
Once the IS problem is defused, though, the conundrum of what to do with Assad will return. I doubt if the international community is really willing to pursue regime change in Damascus, so Turkey may have no choice but to soften its rhetoric and seek a diplomatic exit strategy from the Syrian quagmire. Otherwise, the civil war could conceivably go on for years to come and continue to destabilize the entire region. This would not be in Turkey’s best interests at all. And, what about the millions of Syrian refugees and those displaced by the fighting? Will they ever be able to go home?
Dr. Chris Kilford is the former Canadian defense attaché to Turkey.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman. Click here to go to the original.