“Turkey shares history, geography and ethnic ties to the [Middle East and North Africa] region, which is being turned upside down. Turkey and Israel had been the only democratic countries in the region,” said Professor Savaş Genç of the Department of International Relations at Fatih University, Istanbul.
Regarding Syria, Professor Genç said “Turkey had extremely good relations with the Assad family, but not at institutional level”. “Syrians were initially satisfied with [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad’s reform efforts, which Turkey supported. Turkey preferred to give Assad a chance at first, but the uprising spread. Assad didn’t make enough reforms,” Genç said. “Turkey has experienced a boom in trade relations with Syria. But the most vital thing for Turkey is the link to the wider Middle East – Syria is a key transit route for Turkish exports,” the professor said.
“Turkey wanted to be seen as helping to normalize Syria. But the risk is that it could be seen not to have much influence there. The Libya situation threw Turkey’s Syria policy into confusion,” he said. “Turkey is receiving thousands of refugees from Syria. Before starting to receive refugees and helping the opposition, Ankara tried to maintain the status quo. It held many hours of meetings with Assad. But Turkey now wants Assad to step down,” Professor Genç said.
“Turkey looks at the region in terms of protestors and people’s demands, not from an ethnic or religious point of view. This raises questions regarding Bahrain, where the uprising is Shia,” he said. “Turkey is acting alone regarding Syria. It’s getting little support from the USA. If Turkey had acted to back Assad, it would have lost the support of new governments in places like Egypt and Tunisia. The motivation of the USA and the EU is different,” Genç said.
“If you start to pursue a policy, you have to see it through. Today Ankara’s official position is that it has no confidence in the Assad regime. Expressing otherwise would align it not with the West, but with Russia and Iran,” the professor said. “Assad never persecutes Kurds. He wants to use them against Turkey, and he provides safe channels for the PKK. He was using every channel to try to keep the support of the Turkish government, but ‘the enemy of my new enemy is my new friend’, so he’s backing the Kurds in Syria,” Genç said.
“Members of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq were recently in Ankara. They want energy and trade relations. But Turkey doesn’t want to see an autonomous Kurdish area in Syria, despite the existence of one in Iraq. The Kurdish future in Syria is a key issue for Turkey,” he explained. “Turkey doesn’t want to import the troubles of the area into its bilateral relations. But there are implications for Turkey-Russia relations: they’re at risk of being on opposite sides of the Middle East divide in the recent turmoil,” Genç said.
“The Syrian crisis has revealed fractures in relations between Ankara and Moscow. Turkey wants to use diplomatic means to resolve the Syria conflict, but Russia has insisted that arms sales to Assad must continue,” he said. “Russia has a major influence in Turkey’s Black Sea region. Turkey depends on Russia for 70% of its gas supplies. The rest come from Iran. But Turkey has been an aggressive defender of NATO expansion, so there are different approaches to the Turkey-Russia relationship,” he said.
“Tensions between Turkey and Iran have peaked over the Syria crisis. The Baathist regime in Damascus is one of Iran’s main allies, but Syria is also Turkey’s gateway to the Arab world. Turkey’s relations with Iran aren’t anything new. Turkey supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq war,” Professor Genç said. “Iran wants to depict the Arab revolutions as a success for Islam in the region. [Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki is trying to push more sectarian policies in Iraq, which creates problems for Turkey,” he said.
“Hundreds of Syrians are dying every day. Whether the future Syria is with or without Assad, we have to stop the conflict. The more long-term the conflict becomes, the harder it will be to solve,” he warned.
“There’s a significant difference between what’s happening in Syria and what’s happening in other Arab countries,” said Vitaly Naumkin, Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“Tunisia was a genuine revolution, triggered by a desire for democracy among young people and the middle classes. Egypt was also triggered by people’s search for dignity, but the winners are the Salafists, who have very little to do with democracy,” said Naumkin.
“Syria is not Libya. The Libyan scenario must not be repeated in Syria. Russia allowed the no-fly zone resolution to pass in Libya, which turned into an excuse for the West to intervene militarily. Instead of humanitarian intervention, we saw the disgusting extra-judicial killing of Libya’s leader,” he argued. “That’s why we’re not seeing Russia do the same now by recognizing the few hundred opposition members as representing the Syrian people, as though the 1.2 million Syrian civil servants and army members aren’t also the Syrian people – despite the terrible things happening there,” Naumkin said.
“Syria is not Iraq. The conflict isn’t between Assad and ‘non-Assad’, like it was between Saddam and non-Saddam in Iraq,” he claimed. “Russia rejects the whole notion of regime change of recognized leaders according to the will of the international community,” declared Naumkin, pointing out that Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein had ended up being “brutally killed”. “No-one from Assad’s inner circle will allow him to go easily. Who or what will replace him? There are 7 million Brazilians of Lebanese origin and 4.5m Brazilians of Syrian origin, almost all of whom are Christians but also support Assad. We must take these people into account,” Naumkin argued.
“Philosophy, international order, respect of international law, and no regime change according to the will of the international community – that’s my position. I generally support what the Russian government is doing, but I’m not here to represent it,” he said. “Russia fears that the escalation of the civil war in Syria will have a devastating impact on neighbouring countries. It’s very sectarian, which is worrying. But it’s started now, with France’s decision to recognize the Syrian opposition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” Naumkin said.
“Salafist jihadists are playing a major role in the uprising. It’s not true that the regime is only Alawite. There are other groups too. The army is determined to fight to the death. It’s all lies about ‘defections’ – there aren’t any. And the Syrian army is made up of different ethnic groups – it’s not just Alawites either,” he claimed. “Many Salafist groups active in opposing the Assad regime in Syria have nothing to do with democracy,” he added. “I praise what Turkey is doing for its Kurds and their democracy. But let’s not forget that previously Turkey denied the very existence of its Kurds, in the same way that Syria does now,” Naumkin said. “Russia isn’t defending Assad or his regime. It wants to improve dialogue. Syria is a fragmented country. Assad leaving wouldn’t be enough to satisfy some groups. And where will Assad go?” he said. “Russia is trying its best to promote an inclusive dialogue in Syria. But that won’t be achieved by arming the opposition. We should start by stopping arming the opposition,” he argued.
“We must remember that the Iran-Syria alliance is one of the longest-lasting alliances in the Middle East, despite the very different ideological markers. It’s more a question of realpolitik,” said Rouzbeh Parsi, a research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies.
“This alliance has lasted over 30 years, despite many expecting it to be short-lived. That shows that the geopolitics of the region have largely remained consistent,” Parsi said.
“Iraq is no longer a problem. It’s a new ally, primarily of Tehran but also of Syria. Iran prefers to read the uprisings as Islamic Awakenings, rather than as a desire for democracy and transparency. But this reading is largely delusional, except for the fact that there is some support for Islamist parties – for which some in Iran want to claim credit, no matter whether or not it’s justified to do so,” he said.
“Iran would have preferred the Syrian crisis not to have escalated into a fully-fledged civil war. Tehran wanted a steadfast Assad regime, but it’s now becoming clear that even if the regime survives, it’ll be weakened and may not control the whole country,” Parsi said, explaining that Iran’s hope that the Assad regime would remain had diminished. “The re-assertion of the Assad regime over the entire country is not impossible to imagine. Assad’s father did something similar. It’s unrealistic of the West to expect Assad to go quickly, or to expect that the regime will simply disappear from the Syrian map if he does,” he said, adding: “There are significant minorities in Syria, including Christians.” “Iran’s worst-case scenario is Syria becoming a hardcore Sunni state allied to Saudi Arabia, and therefore an outright enemy of Iran. Whether or not that’s unrealistic is unclear,” Parsi said.
“The question now is what kind of Syria will emerge after Assad. Will it still be a country once this is over? There’s no real chain of command and no leadership that can exercise control over the whole country. It’s more a case of having a few Kalashnikovs and controlling one or two checkpoints,” he argued. “Syria is a symptom of the region’s wider malaise, which is seeing things as a win-lose game. There has to be regional ownership of the situation. Solving the Syria crisis will involve bringing in the Iranians, who wield influence over Assad,” Parsi said. “If Iran has no role to play, then it has no interest in being helpful. If you back Assad into a corner, then you incite him to fight to the death, because he has no other option – at tremendous cost to the Syrian population,” he said. “Iran may also be looking for an opportunity to cut its losses,” he concluded.
Asked where Syria would be five years from now, Professor Savaş Genç of Fatih University, Istanbul, said “the political culture will evolve step-by-step, also in the wider region. The main priority in Syria is to stop the conflict”.
“Syria isn’t a rich country. The conflict has been raging for almost two years now. It’s too long. We must invest time in stopping the conflict. The solution will have to be discussed. Russia will play an important role here, because the conflict isn’t as acute for Moscow as it is for Iran,” Genç argued.
“It’s very difficult to predict what’ll happen to Belgium or the EU in five years too. For Syria, there are a lot of bad scenarios. I’m a bit pessimistic. I think the changes in the Middle East may well go on for 40 to 50 years,” said Vitaly Naumkin of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“There are chemical weapons in Syria. The US is more worried about what’ll happen to those than what’ll happen to Assad. Some of those killed by Assad’s regime in Syria were fundamentalists from Chechnya holding Russian passports. It’s not a one-sided opposition. It’s a very fragmented country. It’s not about arming one side in order to create chaos,” Naumkin warned.
Asked whether it was not in fact in Turkey’s interest to see Assad stay in power in Syria and whether there was scope for Ankara to cooperate with Moscow in this regard, Professor Genç said “Turkey would be happy to have better relations with Russia. It would like to help the Muslim Brotherhood to become more secular and more democratic and to develop better relations with the EU and the US”.
“Turkish foreign policy can no longer be directed by Washington or Moscow. Ankara must develop its own foreign policy,” the professor added.
Responding to claims that Russia was the key player in the Syria crisis – and that perhaps the Syrian army would already have capitulated if it were not for Moscow’s support for Assad – Naumkin said “Russia is not the key player in Syria – it’s one of many players. Russia is working together with China, but also with Brazil and South Africa”.
Asked to comment on the outcome of Egypt’s election, Rouzbeh Parsi of the European Union Institute for Security Studies said “an election doesn’t make a democracy. It’s not something that will be solved or settled within one or two years. The Salafists who are being elected must prove that they are capable of running the country and providing basic services”.