Turkish parties clash over Syria strategy
Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, and particularly under the rule of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), today’s main opposition party, Turkey’s indifference toward the Middle East was best understood with an old Turkish proverb: “Neither sweets from Damascus nor the face of the Arab.” There are many more proverbs indicating Turkey’s negative perception of the Arab world and Syria in particular.
Turkey’s relations with Syria have historically harbored potential conflict. The two immediate neighbors even reached the brink of war in the late 1990s. From the Hatay problem to the water question, from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to the ongoing Syrian conflict, Turkish-Syrian hostility has increased step by step, with the exception of a period of friendly relations in the first decade of this century.
Particularly during the years of the secular CHP’s rule, Turkey distanced itself from the region culturally, psychologically and politically. The CHP’s approach to the region has not changed much.
Last week, the CHP held an International Syria Conference in Istanbul. According to the party’s vice chairman, Unal Cevikoz, who spoke to a Turkish media outlet, representatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government were invited to the conference. Officials from Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon were also invited. Cevikoz said the participants from the Syrian regime were not named in order to prevent any problems in their visa applications or travel to Turkey.
Speaking at the conference, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu stated that establishing a direct dialogue between Ankara and Damascus would be the easiest way to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Syria. He also put forward an initiative to create a peace and cooperation organization that would include Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
However, in 2012, Kilicdaroglu wrote in the Wall Street Journal, asserting that the party views Assad as a brutal dictator who has no place in the future of Syria, and that the refugee problem should not be used to polarize the Turkish population. It would not be wrong to say that the CHP’s initial reaction to the Assad regime and the massive influx of refugees from Syria was balanced and sensible. It is rare, but at that time the CHP was thinking along the same lines as the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) stance of providing Syrians with humanitarian assistance.
The CHP has been criticizing the government’s Syria policy for a long time and this stance was reiterated by Cevikoz.
However, just a year later, in 2013, a parliamentary delegation from the CHP met with Assad in Damascus. The delegation posed smilingly to cameras and shook hands with Assad. The AKP government criticized the visit, saying it was not possible to understand what the CHP was trying to achieve with such an action. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been one of the staunchest opponents of Assad since the latter responded to mass protests with violent interventions in 2011, sparking the ongoing conflict in the country and leading to a mass refugee influx to Turkey.
Today, there are three major points that the CHP and AKP disagree on regarding Syria, while there is maybe only a single issue that they seemingly agree on. The first issue of contention between the parties is the approach toward Assad. Second is the issue of the refugees’ presence in Turkey as, while the government praises itself for its refugee policy, the CHP adopts an anti-refugee rhetoric. Third is Turkey’s offensive foreign policy toward Syria. The only issue they agree on is the fight against the PKK. Kilicdaroglu said in his speech at last week’s conference that Turkey’s struggle against terror beyond its borders is a right guaranteed by international agreements and engagements, adding that Ankara should continue its counterterrorism efforts.
The AKP’s Yasin Aktay slammed the CHP conference on Syria in his column published in the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper. “Assad and his supporters were the only ones invited to the conference, where Turkey was held responsible for almost all the problems in Syria. Additionally, the message given through the conference was that, if a solution is wanted, everything should continue where it left off, as if nothing happened with Assad,” he wrote.
The CHP has been criticizing the government’s Syria policy for a long time and this stance was reiterated by Cevikoz, who said: “Cutting relations with the Assad government was the Turkish government’s biggest mistake since the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011.” However, this begs the question: While Turkey is able to establish indirect relations with the regime through Russia and Iran, why should it directly talk to Assad after the regime’s many atrocities? One expert wrote sarcastically in a tweet: “The Assad regime cannot even establish relations with itself without Russia’s approval.”
The response to the Turkish government’s Syria policy is not to solely criticize without leaving room for debate, but also to propose rational and realistic policy recommendations. That should be the primary task of the opposition. Thus, after all, a “utopian” policy based on establishing ties with Assad cannot and will not work. However, a more realistic policy carried out with the main actors, such as Russia, Iran and Western countries, which could keep Assad in check to a certain extent, could serve Turkey’s long-term national interests.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz