BACKGROUND: On August 11, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on visit in Istanbul, and her Turkish colleague Ahmet Davutoğlu stated that the two countries are intensifying their cooperation in handling the crisis in Syria. The United States and Turkey are to set up a working group tasked with responding to the crisis, notably preparing for a worst-case scenario, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Clinton and Davutoğlu also stressed the importance of preparing for a political transition in which vital state institutions in Syria are not compromised (which was the case in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein).
But although the U.S. and Turkey both want to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, there are nonetheless differences between the American and Turkish approaches. A new Syria, said Clinton, will need to protect the rights of all Syrians regardless of religion, gender or ethnicity. The Turkish government is yet to issue a similar statement.
While there is growing concern in Washington that Islamists are gaining influence among the Sunni rebels in Syria – and increasingly also over the fact that ethnic and sectarian divisions are being exacerbated as the civil war grinds on – Ankara has so far desisted from speaking up in defense of ethnic and sectarian pluralism in Syria; siding exclusively with the Sunni rebels to whom it lends crucial support, political, logistical and military, Turkey has positioned itself not only against the Baath regime, but also against the Alawites, from which the Syrian state elite is mostly drawn, and against the Kurds. Representatives of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) routinely denounce the Syrian regime as the “Alawite minority regime”, while the aspirations of the Kurds, who are manifesting a determination to take charge of their own destiny in northeastern Syria – in the region that borders Turkey and the Kurdish-governed northern Iraq – is condemned in the strongest terms by Ankara.
Seeking to bring about regime change in Damascus, Ankara has unleashed forces that it is having increasing difficulty coping with; in fact, the implosion of Syria puts Turkey at an impasse: if nothing is done to prevent ethnic and sectarian divisions in Syria from getting further out of hand, these threaten to engulf neighboring countries, including Turkey. Yet the remedy – a democratic Syria, where Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Druze; Arabs and Kurds, are all equally accommodated – would also be a challenge to Turkey, as it would encourage its own ethnic and religious minorities in their quest for constitutional reform and equality.
Deniz Baykal, the former leader of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and a member of parliament, recently called for a constitutional overhaul in order to prevent a Syrian contamination in Turkey. Baykal argued that the Alevis, the country’s heterodox Muslim minority – who are estimated to make up a fifth of the population – must be constitutionally recognized and treated with due respect by the state. The former CHP leader pointed out that the State Directorate of Religious Affairs, which tends solely to the needs of the Sunni majority, needs to be reorganized in order to accommodate the Alevis. However, the ruling AKP remains unresponsive to the Alevis’ requests, notably rejecting their demand that their temples (“cem houses”) are recognized officially (Alevis don’t pray in mosques). Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently remarked that “if we are Muslims, our temple ought to be one and the same”, and the speaker of parliament turned down the request of an Alevi member of parliament that a prayer room for Alevis be provided in parliament as a sign of official recognition.
IMPLICATIONS: While the ruling Sunni conservatives of Turkey reject the demands of the Alevis, ostensibly on the grounds that there are no differences between Sunnis and Alevis, they nonetheless do not refrain from singling them out as “the other”, even as non-Muslims, playing on the prejudices of the Sunni majority; that the Alevis are not really Muslims was indeed the implication of Erdoğan’s not so innocent remark that the mosque is the only temple for true Muslims. In the same interview, Erdoğan also referred to an Alevi temple that he had had bulldozed during his tenure as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s as a “monstrosity”.
As evidenced by the fact that representatives of the Turkish government and the AKP routinely refer to the enemy in Syria as “Alawite minority regime”, there is a clear tendency to frame Turkey’s intervention in Syria in sectarian terms; conjuring the image of a battle for the emancipation of the faithful Muslims from the oppression of the heretics cannot but fan sectarian prejudice and even hatred against those that are portrayed as related heretics.
Hüseyin Çelik, a deputy chairman of the AKP, suggested that the critical stance taken by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the CHP, had to do with his Alevi creed: “Why are you defending the Baath regime? Is it perhaps because of sectarian solidarity that Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu is endorsing the Syrian regime?” inquired the deputy chairman of the AKP.
In fact, the Turkish and Kurdish Alevis (Kılıçdaroğlu is an Alevi Kurd) should not be confused with the Arab Alawites, or the Nusayris as they are also known; the latter are estimated to make up a third of the population in Turkey’s Hatay province that borders Syria and around fifteen percent of the populations in the neighboring provinces Adana and Mersin. It is among those, Arab Alawite populations that the Turkish intervention is Syria is provoking anger. The much more numerous Turkish and Kurdish Alevis meanwhile, are not so much in solidarity with the Arab Alawites in Syria as they are vulnerable to the foment of Sunni resentment against presumed heretics. It is above all in that sense that Turkey’s entanglement in Syria, on the side of Sunnis, courts danger at the home-front; as Sunni conservatism is kindled in order to buttress the legitimacy of the Turkish policy, tension is produced along the Sunni-Alevi fault line. On July 29, the house of an Alevi family in the eastern province of Malatya was attacked by a Sunni mob, a reminder that sectarian tensions simmer dangerously.
The not so improbable disintegration of Syria – possibly into three states, Sunni, Alawite-Christian and Kurdish – would conceivably present Turkey with a new challenge in the future, if alienated Arab Alawites in Hatay were to be inspired by the emergence of an adjacent Alawite state. However, much more portentous for Ankara is the emergence of a self governing Kurdish region in northeastern Syria.
Since mid-July, Syrian government forces have vacated the Kurdish-populated districts in the northeastern part of the country, effectively abandoning control to a coalition of Kurdish parties, among which the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the best organized. According to some accounts, a quite agreement had been reached between the al-Assad regime and the PYD. In any case, the Syrian regime and the Kurds are effectively allies, as the Sunni rebels are opposed to the Kurdish demands for equality; and by letting the Kurds set up a self governing region al-Assad has played the Kurdish card against a Turkey that is trying to bring him down.
Ankara has reacted sharply to the developments among the Syrian Kurds. Erdoğan warned that Turkey would intervene were the Kurds to make any attempt to create an autonomous region; the Turkish military would in that case cross the border and establish a buffer zone, Erdoğan vowed. Turkey regards the PYD as the Syrian arm of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and fears that the area will become a safe haven for militants staging attacks in Turkey. The leader of the PYD, Salih Muhammed Müslim, denies that the party has any organizational ties to the PKK, or that Turkey is its enemy, and assures that no attacks will be staged across the Turkish border. The Syrian Kurdish leader invites Turkey to get over its “Kurdish phobia” and institute a close relationship with the Kurds in Syria.
The relationship that Turkey has come to enjoy with the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq – an entity that was long viewed by Ankara as a threat to its vital security interests – could indeed serve as an example to emulate, but such an evolution of the relations with the Syrian Kurds is less likely as the Kurdish march toward autonomy gains momentum. That is bound to have significant cross-border repercussions in Turkey, boosting the morale of the Turkish Kurds and further raising their expectations; indeed, the emergence of a Kurdish region in Syria could prove to be an even more important game-changer than the establishment of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq has been, since the ties of kinship and family are stronger between the Kurds of Syria and Turkey.
CONCLUSIONS: Turkey would make a significant contribution to the resolution of the Syrian crisis if it could bring itself to rise above the sectarian considerations that have dictated its regime change policy in Syria. The establishment of a Sunni conservative, Muslim Brotherhood regime in Damascus – which can be expected to be opposed to the Kurds’ demands for equality, as that is the position of the Sunni Arab rebels – may be an exciting prospect for Turkey’s ruling Sunni conservatives. But Ankara’s calculus could nonetheless change with the growing realization that al-Assad’s fall may not be as imminent as has been assumed, and that Turkey stands to suffer from the ever more destructive effects of a prolonged civil war that ultimately brings about the disintegration of Syria.
To play a constructive role in Syria, Turkey needs to transcend sectarian and ethnic divides, reaching out to the Alawites and to the Kurds, endorsing a pluralistic post-Assad nation. So far, however, Turkey’s intervention in the Syrian civil war has demonstrated how Turkey’s lack of “democratic depth” disables a constructive foreign policy in the service of stability and democratic reform in a region that was supposed to be Turkey’s “strategic depth”.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow and the Managing Editor of theTurkey Analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".