ANALYSIS : TESEV analyst Gündoğar: Expect more violence in Syria in next critical months

28 October 2012 / YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN, İSTANBUL – Both sides traded gunfire in several hot spots across Syria this weekend despite the four-day truce during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, and a foreign policy observer has said “expect more violence” in the coming days, too.

“The next period of four to six months is critical. People are reaching a level of frustration. They’ll start asking for an end to this merciless conflict one way or the other. Winter is coming; refugees will be even more of a problem. Therefore, I believe, in these coming months all parties might increase their level of violence and try to change the situation to their benefit,” said Sabiha Senyücel Gündoğar for Monday Talk.

Gündoğar, foreign policy program director at the Turkish Economic and Social Research Foundation (TESEV), also said there is a need to closely watch reactions from the Gulf countries as they might take some action to change the balance on the ground, especially after the approaching US elections.

The proposed four-day truce during Eid al-Adha had been a long shot from the start since UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi failed to get commitments from all combatants. Fighting dropped off in the first hours of the cease-fire Friday, but by the end of the day, reports said more than 100 people had been killed in the latest bombings and shootings. An estimated 32,000 people have been killed in the 19-month-old conflict.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s allies Russia and China have shielded the regime against harsher United Nations Security Council sanctions, while foreign backers of the opposition have shied away from military intervention.

Meanwhile, Turkey has carried out a series of retaliatory strikes against Assad’s forces fighting rebels along the border since Syrian shelling killed five Turkish civilians in a Turkish frontier town at the start of October.

On this and more, Gündoğar answered our questions.

According to some foreign policy observers, Turkey is preparing the groundwork to launch a war against neighboring Syria. What is your assessment of that?

Well yes, this is what we often hear from foreign policy observers, people in the West. Some from the region and some in Turkey also say so, but I am not convinced about that. There have been more than a couple mortar shells fired from Syria to the Turkish border. As we all know, one killed five people in Akçakale. Before that a Turkish jet was downed, although the mystery surrounding the incident is still there. Ankara had enough reasons to take one of these as cause for war, or at least to be more aggressive in its response. Until now, the government to me seems to have been trying to “control” the Syria crisis, rather than launching a war. It is not easy to forecast what will happen next; the foreign minister of Turkey talking to the Guardian last week called on the international community to make a humanitarian intervention to prevent further disaster in Syria but added that Turkey will not take unilateral action. With the picture getting more complicated every day as the conflict expands — the possibility of a spillover to Lebanon, even Iraq — when there is irrational leadership in Syria fighting for survival, it might get more difficult to “control” the crisis.

Do you expect the tension between the two countries to continue to build? What happens if there are more Turks being killed at the border?

As I just said, it can and more likely it will. The regime in Syria is fighting for survival, and who knows who is in control of what. There is now no doubt that the Assad regime is going to play all the cards it can — already a threat for Turkey’s territorial and political stability. That’s why the issue is more urgent for Turkey than any outsiders, especially Western actors.

Is it in the interest of Turks to get involved in a shooting war with the Syrians?

If I am to choose between a “yes” and “no” answer, it is a no. It is not in the interest of Turkey in the long run, but also not in the short term, though Turkey is now too greatly involved in the conflict. If it reaches such a point that there is an aggressive act from the Syrian regime towards Turkey, Ankara might be left without alternatives. This, to me, would be a disaster scenario for Turkey. I believe, well aware of this, policy makers in Ankara are also trying hard to find a solution, and they are trying to do it with dialogue. Ankara has until now backed all the diplomatic initiatives.

‘Americans tired of operations/interventions’

When it comes to offers for sorts of solutions to protect the Syrian people from the Assad regime, a no-fly zone area or a safe area are among the suggestions. Even though the Turkish government wants it, the US administration has not been willing to establish a no-fly zone in the area. Do you think a new US administration — either a renewed Obama administration with consolidated support or a brand new administration of the Republicans who are more hawkish — might be more willing to establish a no-fly zone?

Experts in US politics say no. All are expecting a lot from the United States after the elections, Turkey as well. It might be the case that after the elections, domestically, the new leader will have more flexibility, and any action would be easier to take. At the moment it does not seem so. In the US, the new administration might be more active in supporting the opposition and enhanced diplomatic efforts might come, but within the given circumstances, there is no signal that the United States will be involved on the ground in regards to the Syrian conflict. It is a fact that US policy makers and the American people are tired of these operations/interventions. It does not help the global image of the US, either.

A comment from an analyst — Henri Barkey from the department of international relations at Lehigh University in the US — was eye catching when he answered in an interview in a Turkish daily that he thinks the Turkish military is not up to the task of establishing a no-fly zone without help from the Western powers. Some Turkish analysts who do not agree reacted negatively to this comment. What is your view of this?

I have to say, I am not an expert on military capabilities. However, I believe the discussion in Turkey over a no-fly zone is taken too “lightly.” This should be a very serious expert discussion. It is not a joke to establish a no-fly zone. You need a high technology air force capability and also troops on the ground to protect the zone. What if there is a fire in this zone? No-fly zone means that you need to be ready for a war the next day. I do not think Turkey has the capacity to take all these measures and risks on its own. Plus, public opinion is at the moment against such an act, which will be an additional challenge for Ankara to take this step.

How do you think the situation could be resolved? Or do you think it can be resolved if Bashar Assad is still there?

As of today, all solutions are on the table for all sides. Assad has little chance of surviving in the long term since he is so isolated internationally. Even Russia and Iran are ready to “lose” Assad. For some, it is a matter that the regime survives, not Assad, and they might offer a safe exit to Assad. I do not think that the opposition, the ones who have left the country until now will sit back quietly if Assad is to stay, meaning they will not accept a solution with Assad. But they have already said a transition with the people of the regime is possible. Regional ownership and initiatives are important for finding a solution — recently we have been seeing some. The next period of four to six months is critical. People are reaching a level of frustration. They’ll start asking for an end to this merciless conflict one way or the other. Winter is coming, and refugees will be even more of a problem. Therefore, I believe in these coming months all parties might increase their level of violence and try to change the situation to their benefit. We also need to closely watch the reactions from the Gulf countries; they might take some action to change the balance on the ground.

‘Gulf states waiting for US elections to take more action’

What kind of action do you expect from the Gulf states?

They might give more support to the opposition to change the balance in the battle. Recently, some in the Gulf have been saying that they are waiting for the US elections to see what US will do after; and if the new administration remains passive, then they will take their own action.

The war is spilling over to Lebanon. Do you think Iraq is the next battleground? What is the likelihood of this war dragging neighbors into it?

I’d like to be optimistic on Lebanon. It is a well-known fact that what happens in Syria has almost a direct effect in Lebanon. But Lebanon can still stay with the least damage possible. Iraq is too far for Assad, I would say. For sure, the Assad regime will try to make it a regional battle on the ground — it is already at the political level.

Do you mean Baghdad is supportive of Assad?

I would think Assad will not fire against Baghdad. Maliki [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] was in support of Assad at the beginning, fearing that the fall of Assad will lead to a strong Sunni government replacing it. Now, the refugees are also a problem for Iraq. Maliki does not want to see Kurds coming to Mosul or Kirkuk.

What are your views regarding Ankara’s fears that a Kurdish zone established in the north of Syria might threaten Turkey’s stability?

This is a scenario that is much speculated on at the moment. Many read the conflict in Syria from the Kurdish angle. Yes, there is a point; Turkey has a Kurdish question, and there is the conflict with the PYD [pro-Kurdish Democratic Union Party based in Syria], which is known as the Syrian leg of the PKK [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party]. And any government in Turkey would be taking the developments from this point as a matter of concern. However, let’s not forget that Turkey is not on bad terms with all the Kurds of the region. Northern Iraq is at the moment one of the best partners of Turkey in the region. Turkey was sharper in the past; it was against a Kurdish region in Iraq and did not want to accept it until recently. When it became a fact on the ground, you do what you should and engage. I have been reading a lot recently, especially in the Western media, that this is “the challenge” for Turkey and the AK Party government [ruling Justice and Development Party]. Some take it even further and predict that this is the end of stability in Turkey. I see such comments as falling short of analyzing the recent foreign policy of Turkey and the pragmatism in it. I do not see why Turkey will not be talking to the Syrian Kurds in the future if not already doing it directly or through Massoud Barzani [leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government-KRG].

So you think that Ankara would be perfectly fine with an autonomous, radical left-wing Kurdish neighbor in the north of Syria?

Not exactly — I do not think that this is what Ankara wants. But if it becomes real, the Turkish government can engage. The stance of Syrian Kurds will then be important as well. They would need to talk with Turkey to survive.

‘Trend shows Turkey still popular, reliable actor in region’

You have measured Arab perceptions of Turkey each year since 2009. And it has consistently showed that Turkey is popular among the people of the Middle East. Is the trend continuing? Are Middle Eastern people still likely to see Turkey as a key regional player, or a divisive actor?

Turkey is still a popular actor in the region. We have been doing this survey analysis since 2009. Until now, the trend has shown that Turkey is still a reliable actor in the region It is no surprise to see differences on certain issues and countries depending on the developments on the ground and considering the dramatic changes in the region. We’ll be releasing the survey results of 2012 on Nov. 1. There is more in the results on this.

Are there increasing suspicions against Turkey in the Middle East? Is Turkey seen as a divisive power as some observers say that Turkey is favoring the Sunni line?

Things are getting complicated in the Middle East. Turkey aimed to be a regional actor, and it went well with cautious steps when things were more or less in order in the region. Now all is up and down. Turkey is facing dramatic and some violent transformations at its borders. So it does not have the luxury of selective engagement. And once you are engaged with one party in a regional conflict, it is not a surprise that your neutrality is questioned by the others. And regional politics has the risk of becoming more sectarian. Turkey has to be careful not to fall into this gap.

‘All expected miracle from Turkish foreign policy’

Do you think Turkey’s ambitions have been set too high in the Middle East, or they have been just right?

The direction of foreign policy, in other words the transformation of foreign policy, came at a very good, needed moment. It was the very right direction to take. Diplomacy, economy and social integration go hand-in-hand, not only in the Middle East but in other regions. We have to keep in mind that the transformation of Turkey coincided with a period in which the Middle East has started to face these dramatic changes. This made it both more difficult for Turkey but also gave it the chance to be flexible.

How so? Don’t you think Turkey has miscalculated how events would unfold in the case of Syria? Was Turkey not mistaken to think that the Syrian regime would fall quickly like the Libyan regime?

Yes, it was. Turkey thought or gave the perception that it could manage the Syrian conflict. I believe not only the government but many thought the Assad regime would fall in a year’s time once the conflict started. Now we all see this is not the case. But even if this was a miscalculation, Turkey could not do much. It could have increased the number of diplomatic channels, but there is a slim chance that they would have succeeded. To me, the mistake was giving an exaggerated perception — that it could control the situation. It was also a mistake to raise unachievable expectations. All expected a miracle from Turkish foreign policy. When Turkey came out as a regional power and conflicts surfaced in the region, the expectation was “Turkey can take this; it can control the situation.” This was too much to expect. It is not possible to have any policy without a mistake; what is important is to see that and be able to adapt quickly. We have to see the context in which Turkey’s foreign policy is being shaped. Turkey had difficulties adopting and handling radical changes; the Syrian case is a real challenge for Turkey, and it has partially failed to realize its ambitions. But despite all the criticism, there is a role for Turkey in the region.

‘Turkey needs more realistic approach to zero problems policy’

Do you think Turkey needs a new foreign policy motto today rather than “zero problems with neighbors” policy?

Not a new motto, but maybe a more realistic approach to “zero problems.” New paths have opened in the region with the Arab Spring; this is a real fight of people to have better lives. Of course it is challenged by power wars within and outside the region, but at the end “people” emerged as actors, and I believe this will be the real shift in the region. It will take time, but it has started. In such an environment, Turkey has to be cautious and less ambitious in its foreign policy. And we have to keep in mind that as the Syrian case demonstrates, the ability to take care of problems in domestic politics sometimes determines the flexibility in foreign politics.

Do you think Turkey has a certain policy toward the Middle East or the Arab world?

I think it has. It is having economic and social integration, being diplomatically engaged in regional affairs. It is not indifferent to what is going on around its borders. It has the will and aim to be a regional power, a conflict mediator. As I mentioned, despite difficulties and criticism there is a role for Turkey in the region if Turkey consolidates its domestic politics and democracy and makes its economic success sustainable. It is still immature and needs more capacity building but has the ideals, principles and motivations to play a pivotal role in regional politics.


Sabiha Senyücel Gündoğar

Foreign Policy Program director at the Turkish Economic and Social Research Foundation (TESEV), she is the co-author of the annual survey since 2009, “Perception of Turkey in the Middle East.” She received her bachelor’s degree in international relations and master’s degree in European studies, both from İstanbul Bilgi University. She obtained her second master’s degree in European public administration from Leiden University, the Netherlands. She joined TESEV in 2002 as a research assistant for the European Union Monitoring Project. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in political science at İstanbul Bilgi University.