Thursday, 30 May 2013

What the Columnists Say

Published in Roundup of Columnists

The terrorist attack in the town of Reyhanlı on May 11, which left over fifty dead, making it the deadliest terror attack ever in Turkey, has generally been interpreted as being a consequence of Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, and the Syrian regime is assumed to have been responsible for it. However, there is nonetheless a divergence of views among the columnists in the Turkish press as to what Turkey’s response to Syria should be. While a “hawk” like Cengiz Candar advocates retaliation against Syria in order to deter it from repeating the attack in Reyhanlı, a more “dovish”, reasoned, attitude in fact dominates, with the government invited to recognize that things in Syrian are neither black nor white. Many columnists express concern that sectarian tensions will be inflamed in Turkey, and it is also pointed out that the old habits of engaging in a designation of “internal enemies” has  returned, poisoning the societal atmosphere.



İhsan Dağı in Zaman observes that that the Syrian crisis has become the major problem of Turkish foreign policy. Turkey is neither succeeding in taking unilateral steps that would solve the problem, nor is it able to persuade international forces to act jointly. In the final analysis, Turkey’s options are restricted. And this picture is damaging to the image of regional power that Turkey had been building up in recent years. What is more, the crisis has also created political and societal tensions within the country. The Syrian crisis is inciting the government to revert to the methods and language of the old state. As the troubles mount, there is a growing expectation that the people should display unity, be loyal with the government and obey and support it; hence, there is a diminishing tolerance for dissenting views. The attack in Reyhanlı is, perhaps without our quite noticing it, resuscitating the discourse about the internal enemy, which we had forgotten for a while; once again, we have started to look for an enemy among us. That is because we assume that there are elements within the country that support the attacks of Syria, that the Syrian regime has tentacles in Turkey. Censorship was imposed on the reporting from Reyhanlı; the people are expected to listen only to the state. These are the reflexes and the language of the old Turkey. They may appear convenient for those who run the state, but the country will not benefit from them.


Mustafa Akyol in Star, who supports the uprising in Syria, nonetheless invites his own camp to face up to certain facts. The first of these is that some groups among the Syrian opposition, in particular Salafi groups like al-Nusra, have really committed acts that need to be condemned. The second fact is that Turkey’s power is limited. Yes, Turkey is a much more powerful country today than it was a decade ago, but it is not a superpower.  We stood on the right side of history in Syria when the uprising began, but just like the Westerners, we did not foresee how things were going to evolve. Meanwhile, our knowledge about the Arab world is limited. We boast about our Ottoman past in the region, but how many experts do we have who speak good Arabic? While we are rightly incensed by what is happening in Syria, we also need to soberly ponder these facts. We have embarked on what will be a difficult, exacting journey in what is by all accounts a very tough geography.


Kadri Gürsel in Milliyet writes that as long as Turkey’s current Syria policy is maintained, the country will face a growing risk to its security; and societal tensions are bond to mount in the border areas which are particularly sensitive because of their sectarian mix. Why couldn’t those who crafted this aggressive foreign policy out of Islamic-Ottoman, and thus Sunni ideological impulses, also put a national security policy in place? Turkey would have needed a policy based on the recognition that peace and stability in this region can only be advanced by a realistic national security policy that gives priority to the security of the country and its citizens. If this government had had a viable security policy, it would not have pursued the goals that it has in Syria, regardless of its ideological inclinations; is it at all conceivable that this unrealistic and extreme Syria policy would have been put in place if due consideration had been given to the inadequacies of the intelligence services, the military and generally the state institutions, and in light of the insufficient intellectual and human capital that can be drawn on, and the capacity gap in the economy? If the AKP government had crafted a Syria policy that gave priority to protecting the borders of the country and the security of the people, it would either have abstained from doing things that invite the terrorism of the “enemy”, or it would have had the means to stop the terrorism.


Orhan Kemal Cengiz in Radikal deplores that it has become impossible to conduct a healthy conversation about the role that Turkey is playing in Syria with those who support the policies of the government. The crimes that are committed by those who are battling against the regime of Assad, the terrible lynching of captured soldiers, the murders of government employees, the torture, is either not admitted or excused as a response to the repression of the regime. Yes, it is true that Assad repressed the initial, peaceful protests, and that the regime has perpetrated massacres. But by now the Syrian conflict has turned into a sectarian conflict that embroils the whole region. At this point we all need to coolly reassess our positions. The government needs to take a critical look at its policies. It has to be recognized that we are facing a very complex situation where nothing is either black or white.


Cengiz Çandar in Radikal takes a critical view of those who suggest that the Turkish government has brought troubles on Turkey by its Syrian policies. Should we assail the government for having pursued erroneous policies, or should we instead clearly identify the regime in Syria that is not only guilty of barbaric acts in its own country, but which is exporting them across its borders? Let’s not confuse apples and oranges. By all means, let us point out the mistakes that have been committed by Turkey, but let us above all be clear about the bloody nature of the regime in Syria. We need to do our utmost to prevent Sunni-Alevi tensions from flaring up in Turkey. If the Syrian regime is not held to account in some way for what was done in Reyhanlı, if it is not deterred, it will repeat Reyhanlı. That is the clear and present danger.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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