Why does Turkey support intervention in Syria?

Ceylan Ozbudak

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In recent days the world has seen rulers overthrown, governments elected, embattled and deposed by the tumult of the Arab peoples. Turkey meanwhile, rocking and tossing in the waves, has been a great ship of state. While the Arab peoples are going through these changes, Turkey is a model of moderation and mediation throughout the Mediterranean, in cooperation with Europe, and the United States. Still ahead of the world’s GDP growth in the last decade and a bit behind the emerging markets, compared to any advanced countries Turkey did really well and the perception from the West is now different.

Is this perception changing only because the Turkish pockets are fuller than the West? Although it’s true that Turkey has become an important trading partner (particularly with Germany) in recent years, that would be a very simplistic explanation for Turkey’s stature today. One of the significant success stories added to its report card has been its sustainable foreign policy. While being criticized as being lonely and silent, Turkey turned out to be a reasoned partner in terms of diplomacy.

Against public opinion

Even though her approach sometimes went strongly against international or regional public opinion, Turkey held on to her standards values and has proven to be a reliable partner. Like the Iron Lady, the late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said: “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.”

As far back as 2001, Turkey’s involvement with “the war on terror” was limited to the contribution of 290 non-combatant personnel in Afghanistan. Although that foray was cited as an example of “cooperation” with the other intervening governments at the time, in fact, Turkey never took part in military operations other than as a security force.

Like the Iron Lady, the late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said: “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.”

Ceylan Ozbudak

While America has become embroiled in a seemingly interminable conflict, Turkey ended up having a strong friendship with the Afghan government and the goodwill of the Afghan people. A July 2012 survey in Kabul of 1,259 people shows that Afghanistan relies mostly on Turkey, and consider Turkey to be Afghanistan’s one and only true best friend.

In Libya, Turkey was the first to say “Qaddafi must go.” However: Turkey abstained from getting involved with the military intervention to depose him. Likewise, when the world was in a craze to proceed from Libya to further intervention in Syria (and then just as quickly trying to find ways to back peddle), Turkey used a deliberate, steady hand.

Although Erdoğan formerly enjoyed a personal friendship with Bashar al-Assad, he was the first to say “Assad must go!” after Assad started slaughtering his own people in the spring of 2011. Like a man standing close to a grenade, Turkey has been catching the shrapnel of the Syrian civil war ever since; not just in terms of the seventy Turkish civilians who lost their lives in this fight, but also in terms of half a million Syrian refugees which have found shelter in Turkish towns.

Soft spot for Syria

Turkey has maintained an open Syrian border at the expense of its own southern flank throughout this war, supplying a continuous flow of humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees. Many people have forgotten that the treaty of Sykes-Picot drew lines on a map, which literally divided families after the First World War. Before this pernicious Syrian civil war, Turkey and Syria used to have open borders on religious holidays to let people in northern Syria and southern Turkey cross freely to visit their families across the line.

Turkey’s current policy of sacrificial kindness is a manifestation of these cords of family affection and religious devotion, which bind the Turkish and the Syrian peoples indissolubly forever. Turkey’s charity towards the Syrian people is not only a diplomatic policy; it is our answer to the call of blood.

After an August 21, 2013 chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb killed 1,429 people, including 426 children, American intelligence reported with “high confidence” that Assad forces had launched the attack.

The White House released statement after statement expressing its certainty that Assad, not the rebels, who was responsible for the gassing of these innocent people. David Cameron made an impassioned speech about how the Great Britain will not stand and watch a dictator use chemical weapons on innocent civilians, and France started beating the drum to frenzy among its allies to punish Assad for what he has allegedly done.

In sum, a general hue and cry has ensued in the U.S. and in Europe, as politicians have begun, at long last, to find casus belli for action based on this signal event.

Turkey’s policy towards Syria was different in recent days. This time, when the talks of intervention began, Turkey has stepped up to the plate, offering full cooperation, including permission to the U.S. to use its military bases, air space, airports and intelligence, to undertake the attack on Assad’s regime.

A clear ‘yes’

Turkey gave a clear “yes” to military intervention against the regime, but there is a difference between the logic of intervention between Turkey, on one hand, and between the U.S. and Europe, on the other: Whereas the Western initiative is based on this August 21 incident, the Turkish approach to Syria is rooted in recognition that 100,000 people had already lost their lives in Syria before this attack.

Consequently, the overwhelming majority of the population is ready to support a Turkish role in a proposed intervention at this time, and the decision to offer support has met with little opposition. This opposition included waiting for the U.N. inspectors to finish their jobs before coming to a decision, which came as no surprise since no-one can clearly say who carried out the chemical attack at this point.

After America moved and positioned its aircraft carriers for an intervention and started the countdown, the British Parliament voted “No!” to an intervention pending a full report by the U.N. inspectors. France likewise, forgetting for the moment that it was she who had been wishing to drag America into this fight in the first place, reverted to its default pose, leaving Obama holding the bag. (Then the French changed their minds again, and again…) Turkey has stood in her decision to support the intervention, standing by the U.S. as a function of integrity to its own principles.

Like the majority of Turkey’s foreign policy decisions, Turkey’s policy in favor of intervention now has nothing to do with any adolescent plan to “save the day” before supper. Turkey’s position is the outworking of a well-reasoned, principled policy, which furthers humanitarian, and also Turkish interests.

Regime change

A resolution to the Syrian civil war would dispose of many other besetting problems for Turkey: It is no secret that the first people we will have to turn to after the regime change will be the Syrian National Council (SNC). One of the reasons our Western allies have been reluctant to intervene until now has been that the SNC has failed to offer solid leadership or reasonable plans of contingency for the universe of possible scenarios, which any proposed revolutionary government must be prepared to meet.

Although that is a substantial political issue, we can safely say no one in the SNC is likely to raid villages, burn houses, and shoot civilians. We can live with ineffective politicians and so can anyone. Let’s not forget according to a recent poll, only 14% of the American population trust that their congress is doing a good job.

Solving Rojava may solve the PKK problem

I personally interviewed some Kurdish activists from the Northern Syria about the “Rojava Concept” and how their integration would be in a process after Assad. In my humble opinion, Rojavan Kurds are open to negotiating with the SNC, provided their rights and security are guaranteed. The incorporation of Rojavan Kurds into a new Syrian state would afford breathing space to Turkey in relation to its own Kurdish PKK dissidents, and would prove Turkish good will in terms of protecting the rights of Kurds, not only in Turkey, but also in other countries after Iraq.

Desired pipeline

A major gas pipeline, which was to span from Qatar, across Syria, and into Turkey, is another significant factor in Turkey’s stance towards the conflict there. Assad had rejected a proposal for this pipeline, in favor of a deal with Iran. As Turkey makes progress to enhance its role as the energy and air transfer hub and as a key bridge between the East and West, this prospect of this pipeline is a crucial benefit to the Istanbul Canal project, and promises to be a glorious success for Turkey’s governing AK party.

Credibility in the Middle East

From a Turkish stand point, Syria will find its political balance sooner or later after Assad since the people of Syria are only hoping to get this fight over with. Then we get to the phase of rebuilding the Middle East, not only Syria, which will give Turkey the strong hand in the credibility she seeks.

Turkey showcased a foreign policy of principles. This brought her stability in politics and economy, which in return turned into credibility in terms of international diplomacy. This contributed to Turkey’s domestic affairs and created a society which reacts to instability and helped weather storms like this year’s Gezi protests.


Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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