It tends to be forgotten, but in the fall of 1998 Turkey and Syria almost went to war.
Today, Ankara’s enthusiasm for possible US airstrikes against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad makes one realize how Turkey’s Syrian odyssey has come full circle since that fateful fall of 1998. Even as US military action against Syria is becoming more likely, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu are disappointed that their Western and Middle Eastern allies are unwilling to use all means necessary to quickly topple the Assad regime. Five lessons from the 1998 episode and its aftermath could help Ankara devise policies more in tune with its national interests in Syria.
Barın Kayaoğlu, a visiting fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University, is finishing his doctorate in history at the University of Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).
The coup reflected the textbook logic of any military takeover in an unstable democracy: in order to save democracy, the Egyptian military had to destroy it.
What happens now? Unfortunately, neither Egypt’s own history nor examples from other Middle Eastern countries are reassuring. Egypt had experienced a coup in 1952. The coup’s strongman, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, promised to lead the country to development and democracy. Soon, however, Nasser decided that he could not bring both wealth and democracy to his land so he forsake the latter to achieve the former (with immense popular support, it must be said). Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Nasser in 1970, was much less committed to Nasser’s socialism. Nevertheless, he held on to Nasser-like authoritarianism. Mobarak, a very different man than both Nasser and Sadat, also ran his country in an autocratic fashion.
Now, Egypt’s military faces an enormous task: it has to draft a constitution and build the political institutions that would balance the demands and expectations of all Egyptians – be they Muslim, Christian, secular, male, female, traditional, or Western-oriented. Otherwise, in a few years it could easily find itself in a position where it would have to save democracy by destroying it again.
Barın Kayaoğlu, a Smith Richardson Foundation fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University, is finishing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.
I remember having mixed reactions back in 2009 when President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On the one hand, just like many people in the United States and around the world, I was excited about his presidency. He looked, spoke, and acted differently than his predecessor, George W. Bush.
I was worried that the immense weight of the Nobel would raise expectations so high that – much like a child prodigy cracking under pressure and failing to reach his full potential – Mr. Obama would not be able to accomplish a great deal on the international scene.
To be sure, the American president has had impressive foreign policy accomplishments. He successfully guided the new nuclear arms reduction treaty (new START) with Russia through what could’ve been an impossible Senate ratification. His cautious approach to the Libyan Revolution in 2011 and his reluctance to go to war with Iran for its controversial nuclear program are also commendable. But the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize should earn the award by averting a major war or alleviating massive suffering, especially if he or she happens to be a current president of the United States.
Obama’s Allies and Adversaries in Syria
I was hoping that Syria would give Mr. Obama that opportunity but I don’t think that’s going to happen. The last time I wrote about Syria fifteen months ago, I had ended on a pessimistic (and somewhat banal) note: “Half-hearted political talk will certainly not solve Syria’s tragedy. But determined action may not be the answer either.” 70,000 dead Syrians later, I’m sorry to see that I have yet to be corrected.
The problem facing the President is that two of America’s Middle Eastern allies which are most involved in the Syrian crisis – namely, Turkey and Qatar – are pursuing policies that undermine U.S. interests. While Washington hopes to end the conflict on a negotiated settlement – the guns fall silent, an interim government takes over, and the Syrian people decide their future in free and fair elections – Ankara and Doha arm Sunni extremists, most notably Al-Nusra Front, which recently announced its allegiance to Al-Qaeda, the group that carried out the attacks of September 11, 2001. Al-Nusra is busy replacing the Free Syrian Army as the main insurgent group in Syria.
Not even Mr. Obama’s good relations with the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, can help the United States to break the Syrian knot. The two leaders are scheduled to meet in Washington on 16 May. Even if the American president makes a convincing case that Turkish support for Sunni insurgents is making the war in Syria bloodier, longer, and harder to end, it may not have an effect. In the aftermath of the car bombings in the Turkish town of Reyhanlı on the Syrian border two days ago, Mr. Erdoğan maintained his combative and defiant tone; he is not the type to admit mistakes and change course.
It would have been great for the United States if Mr. Erdoğan had the power to topple the Assad regime singlehandedly. The problem is that neither Turkey nor any of Washington’s regional allies – except perhaps Israel – would be able to pull off a military operation against Assad without U.S. support. After the Syrian military shot down a Turkish jetfighter last year, civilian and military leaders in Ankara realized the immense costs of the fight for Syria. The allegations of the use of chemical weapons sobered them once again. The Jordanians, Saudis, or Qataris would also be very hesitant to engage Assad head-on for similar reasons. As for the Israelis, despite their capabilities, it would be foolish of them to hand a golden opportunity to Damascus and Tehran to make the case that the uprisings in Syria are part of a “Zionist plot.”
Indeed, American “birds in the sky” may prevent the need for “boots on the ground.” Or, American birds could very well be combined with Turkish, Saudi, Qatari, and Jordanian boots on the ground. Unfortunately, even then a resolution to the Syrian conflict may not come, especially if Iranian and Lebanese Shia boots respond in kind.
The irony with the current deadlock in Syria is that, if Mr. Obama wants to resolve it on America’s terms, he would have to act like his maligned predecessor and go it alone (or preferably with “a coalition of the willing”). In fact, unlike Mr. Bush in Iraq in 2002-03, Mr. Obama may actually find many eager regional partners to topple Bashar Assad. Yet, it’s highly unlikely that the American people and their president will walk down that road – unless, of course, Mr. Obama decides to return his Nobel Prize.
Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Virginia and a predoctoral fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.
In the aftermath of the Russian and Chinese vetoes at the United Nations Security Council, many Western countries and their Middle Eastern allies are looking for new ways to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The “Friends of Syria” meeting held in Tunisia last week aimed to remake the Syrian National Council – a coalition comprising dozens of different opposition groups – into a more cohesive front. Foreign governments are probably laying the groundwork to recognize the Council as a “government-in-exile” in the near future. But Syria’s friends have a long way to go before they have a shot at ousting Assad.
Beyond giving political backing to the Syrian National Council, arming the Free Syrian Army seems as a more realistic option. The FSA, a militia group primarily composed of soldiers who have deserted Assad’s army, is already using Turkish territory for its activities. Thus, the Turkish government’s threats against Assad that “all options are on the table” should be read as an intention to establish “safe areas” and perhaps more.
There is no question that the international community has to do something about the tragedy in Syria. It’s been a year and over 8,000 dead Syrians since the uprisings have begun. But the countries backing anti-Assad forces in Syria would be fooling themselves if they think “safe areas” or giving more arms and ammo to the FSA will accomplish anything. Humanitarian missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda in the 1990s amply demonstrated that “safe areas” are half-hearted attempts that do not succeed. More important, the absence of a strong international force only emboldens the aggressor to kill more – something that the international community is supposed to prevent.
The international community should also think whether it should and could makepeace through a full-scale military intervention in Syria because talking the talk of military intervention is easier than walking the walk. Russia and China have already demonstrated that they do not want Western countries, Turkey, and the Arab League in Syria. It is almost certain that Iran will mobilize its resources and assets (read: Hezbollah) to shore up its allies in Damascus. It is also certain that public opinion in the West, Turkey, and Arab countries will not support military action against Syria.
If the anti-Assad groups and their international supporters are really determined to overthrow the Baath regime, they have to see the biggest risk about post-Assad Syria: given its multi-confessional nature, foreign intervention may very well exacerbate religious discord (à la Iraq). That will put the people of Syria in a situation even worse than the present.
Half-hearted political talk will certainly not solve Syria’s tragedy. But military action does not look like the answer either.
Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.