Turkey could save Syrian civilians and the Arab uprisings too

The popular revolts that spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 never posed a threat to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The reason for this can be traced far back to the charismatic leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his modernization program, which focused on nationalism and secularism, throughout the 1920s and until his death in 1938. Though he became more and more autocratic, his baptism of a Republican parliament and lip service to “people’s sovereignty” had a lasting effect. His successor, Ismet Inonu, sided with the United States in the post-WWII Cold War era and, to gain Western favor and liberal bona fides, even allowed the formation of a second party, the Democrats. As France and Britain lost their hold on the Middle East, military officers in Egypt, Syria and Iraq initiated bloody coups. Turkey was not immune to this rash of military takeovers. Yet, while the other governments morphed into socialist dictatorships, the Turkish generals “introduced a new constitution that was surprisingly liberal and progressive…. By the end of 1961 they had transferred power to a new parliament that chose Inonu as their prime minister.” [i]

And so began a tradition in Ankara that happened again in 1971 and 1980: The armed forces usurped control from weak, ineffectual coalition governments who were often besieged by violent radicals from both the left and the right. But remarkably, after banning various political parties and revising the constitution, the generals would then relinquish power to a new civilian leadership. The outlawed parties would simply rename themselves for the eventual elections, which were usually reinstated within three years. This occurred for the last time in February 1997 in what was dubbed “the postmodern coup.” Turkish generals, including Erol Ozkasnak and Cevik Bir, issued a set of demands that led to the June removal of a democratically elected prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and his Islamic Welfare Party. The officers proceeded to engineer the ban of religious-based parties and politicians, such as the popular Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The problem was that the Muslim populace, as it had done for decades, continued to insist upon some form of Islamic leadership with its vote. Erdogan, Ahmet Davutoglu (the current foreign minister), and Abdullah Gul (the current president) used the postmodern coup as a teachable moment. Soon these men had formed the Justice and Development Party (made up of the former Islamic Welfare Party), which placated the military by eschewing fundamentalist ideology and Sharia law, but played to devout Muslims by being socially conservative. By 2002, the AKP was swept into office and in 2007 Erdogan and these center-rightists in parliament won again. [ii]

In an ironic twist, the men responsible for the post-modern coup are now being rounded up by Erdogan, the current prime minister, and brought to testify for their actions. The civilian government was responding to rumors of another coup plot by the military. According to an April 2012 Hurriyet Daily News article, General Bir reportedly said while in custody

“Protecting the Turkish Republic is the duty of the Turkish Armed Forces [TSK]. Religious fundamentalism was the primary internal threat according to the National Security Policy Document at that time. . . . We conducted all of our work in accordance with our legal and constitutional duties. If we hadn’t done our duty, we would have committed illegal acts” [iii]

In spite of questionable maneuvers on both sides, the sociopolitical balance between a secular military willing to cede power to civilians and a popular Islamic party willing to avoid the specter of religious law is a primary reason that Turkey’s Sunni Muslim population did not feel inspired to act in the Arab Awakening.

Turkey often appears to be the best model of a with a working Islamic democracy on the global scene. And considering its neighbors, NATO and the Obama administration—which increasingly need Turkey (often a less controversial ally than Israel or Saudi Arabia) as a steadfast partner—have an interest in promoting that reputation. Yet according to Human Rights Watch, the Turkish government still has a lot of room for liberal improvement:

The government has not prioritized human rights reforms since 2005, and freedom of expression and association have both been damaged by the ongoing prosecution and incarceration of journalists, writers, and hundreds of Kurdish political activists, particularly through the misuse of overly broad terrorism laws.[iv]

While the Kemalist tradition of discrimination against political Islam has softened, nationalist pride and political insecurities still fuel Ankara’s unwillingness to suffer dissent or resolve problems with Greece, Armenia and Kurdish groups. Turkey is far from an idyllic open society, but its degree of religious moderation, free-ish markets and steady progress toward smoothe transfers of power have kept it on the cusp of becoming a Western-style democracy.


Though the Arab Awakening had little effect on Turkish citizens, it quickly changed the nature of the AKP’s regional foreign policy. The ouster in Tunisia of President Zine El Abidene Ben Ali, the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the toppling of Libya’s Colonel Mummar el-Qaddafi and the insurgency threatening the Assad dynasty in Syria all came as a shock to Ankara, as it did to the world. But the ruling party positioned Turkey on the right side of history. Said a November 2011 paper published by the European Institute of the Mediterranean (“Turkey and the Arab Spring: Embracing ‘People Power,’ ” funded partly by the European Union):

Turkey has embraced the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East and has called for the establishment of governments that will have popular support and legitimacy. For example, in an interview with The New York Times, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu proclaimed regarding Turkish-Egyptian future relations: “It will be an axis of democracy of the two biggest nations in our region, from the north to the south, from the Black Sea down to the Nile Valley in Sudan.” [v]

In Cairo, one could argue that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is using the twentieth-century Turkish philosophy toward government. Despite promises of a complete and legal June 2012 transfer of power, the military used Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court to bar the most popular, and therefore powerful, presidential candidates on various technicalities. When it appeared that a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood—whose Justice and Freedom Party won the majority in January’s parliamentary elections—had a good chance at becoming president, the junta nullified those elections as unconstitutional (again using the Court) and dissolved parliament, effectively ending a voter-backed Brotherhood takeover. To an Egyptian public thirsty for a voice at the voting booth and an end to emergency-law, this did not sit well. Many from the grass-roots movement that ended Mubarak’s reign headed to Tahrir Square in protest, and Egyptian politicians of all stripes labeled these efforts by the SCAF a veritable coup. The outcry subsided once Mohammad Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, secured the presidency on June 24, 2012, but the SCAF’s intentions to remain a ruling entity are clear: they preemptively limited presidential powers in regard to foreign policy and the budget.[vi] Though Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Major General Mohamed Said al-Asser congratulated Morsi and lauded the election outcome as proof of their transitional progress,[vii] the uneasy dynamic in Cairo should look familiar to students of modern Anatolian history. Even with its imperfections, Turkey is the best example for a redeveloping Egypt that has begun its democratic growing pains in earnest. President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood should create a socially conservative, implicitly secularist and anticorruption-based coalition with the powerful SCAF while easing toward a free-market economy and liberal constitution. Morsi’s disassociation with the Brotherhood, ostensibly to appear independent, is a step in the right direction.

During the rebellion in Libya, Ankara’s response showed flexibility and pragmatism. Erdogan, Davutoglu et al, at first rejected calls for foreign intervention to aid the rebels. The thousands of Turkish workers in that country plus significant business connections to Colonel Qaddafi, naturally, gave the Turks pause. But when Qaddafi began to boast about massacring Libyan civilians and his removal became more feasible internationally, the AKP did not hesitate to change course and back the U.S./NATO plan to overthrow the 40-year dictator. The Arab Awakening strengthened Turkey’s geopolitical hand, especially with the West. According to Democracy Digest

Turkey is the “biggest winner of the Arab Awakening,” according to a new survey of Arab public opinion, but the United States remains distrusted and President Barack Obama relatively unpopular, despite Washington’s support for democratic reform. Turkey has played the “most constructive” role and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is considered the most admired leader by a large margin, according to the Brookings Institution’s latest annual “Arab Public Opinion Survey.” [viii]


Alas week after week, one major component of the Arab uprising tests Turkey’s role in the phenomenon: the one-sided civil war in Syria. It’s proximity and relative sovereignty (as opposed to Lebanon) put Turkey literally on the front lines of regional response to the escalating violence. In February 2011, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered advice and assistance to his one-time ally:

Since the beginning of the riots, when Erdogan phoned Bashar al-Assad every day and only called for the implementation of major reforms, there has been a significant change for the worse in relations…. Davutoglu said regarding this change of policy: “We wanted [Assad] to be the Gorbachev of Syria, but he chose to be Milosevic.” vii

Indeed, the regime of Bashar al-Assad conducted a brutal crackdown on all manner of protest and dissent within Syria, the extent of which—systematic torture of women and children in gulag-type prison—is coming to light 16 months later.[ix] Due to the long shared border, Turkey, unlike the European Union, the Arab League and other nations who could criticize Assad’s actions from afar, had much more at stake in which side to take. Yet the Erdogan government took a stand against Damascus, and well before the summer, when Syrian tanks rolled in on demonstrators in Homs and began killing more than one hundred civilians on a given day. One reason might have been the expectation that Syrian refugee camps in Turkey would quickly reach five-figure populations, as they did by June.[x]

In cutting off diplomatic relations so quickly, the Turks must have presumed, correctly, that, along with thousands of refugees, they would be hosting the Syrian military defectors and armed opposition who make up the ever more formidable Free Syrian Army (FSA). By providing protection to the FSA and the exiled Syrian National Council, Turkey was already a de facto enemy of Damascus. They must have also presumed, incorrectly, that Bashar al-Assad was fated to fall soon, or if not, some kind of NATO/Western intervention aimed at regime change was imminent. Late in 2011, as both the regime and the opposition dug in for a protracted conflict, and “buffer zone” proposals along the border were scrapped at the behest of the West, the international media pointed out how Ankara’s tough talk left it in an awkward position.

Even carrying out its threats against al-Assad and deciding upon sanctions against Syria took Turkey quite a while. Only after the Arab League decided to impose sanctions against Syria in late November did Turkey follow and in a more subtle manner. It emphasized that its sanctions were not directed against the Syrian people and that vital supplies like water and electricity were not included in them.[xi]

A stalemate of sorts has slowly taken shape. The Syrian opposition had overrun and held many towns by early 2012, such as Idlib, parts of Homs and Hama, and even reaching to the eastern suburbs of Damascus. The February 4 Homs massacre of possibly 500 civilians from shelling marked the regime’s take-no-prisoners tactics to recover these cities, which they did. The Syrian military, backed by continued Russian and Iranian arms, held the advantage throughout May but mass defections by Sunnis and a growing FSA have once again made this conflict appear endless.

But a constant question remains: Who comprises this insurgency? Bashar al-Assad and his spokespeople have long dubbed them armed terrorist gangs. After suicide bombings rocked Damascus in early 2012, claims that elements of al-Qaeda have entered the fray add to the uncertainty. In fact, the Free Syrian Army is simply a catchall rubric overlying myriad factions with little internal contact, unity or oversight, and no significant connections to the exiles of the Syrian National Council. There is still no clear central opposition leadership that any outside powers seem to consider getting safely behind. And Turkey is far from the only nation, bloc or organization that appears helpless to act.


Syria’s internal war has impacted the international community more than all the other Arab revolts combined. Generating rifts within the United Nations Security Council and rupturing Sunni and Shiite communities, the segregated former French mandate continues to exacerbate dividing lines (despite its lack of oil). While Russia and Iran back their client president and his Alawite majority government—opposing foreign intervention on the rebel side, along with China—President Obama has called for the dictator to step down and end the Assad family’s 30-plus-year rule. Though reports have surfaced that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are quietly supplying arms to the Syrian rebels, with some oversight from the CIA, the United States remains on the sidelines in terms of material support. Within the Middle East, the conflict has been called a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, allying itself with the mostly Sunni insurgency, and Iran, who has a proprietary Shiite bond with the elite Alawite circle of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile Russia’s attempts to send helicopter gunships and additional high-powered weaponry have met stiff resistance from Great Britain and the U.S. in both word and deed.

It’s not for lack of trying that the international community has failed to be effective. From March 2012 onward, Kofi Annan, as a special representative from the United Nations, has met with Bashar al-Assad numerous times and has received various conditional guarantees of a cease-fire that was never intended to come to fruition. Annan’s much remarked upon six-point plan for peace could not halt either side from continued violence for even twenty-four hours. U.N. Observers are neither able to stem the tide of bloodshed nor even avoid being used to parrot propaganda from whichever side is interviewed.viii As of July 2012, the Observer mission has been scaled back due to safety concerns.

In April, the Turks hosted a second Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul where dozens of nations debated cease-fires, calls for humanitarian aid, sanctions against the Syrian government and other potential solutions. Various sets of nations, including the U.N. Security Council as well as representatives from several Syrian opposition groups have met in Cairo, Geneva and Paris throughout the spring and summer with no practical program to decrease the fighting on the ground. Instead, the internal war has intensified. With a death toll of more than 15,000 and rising, even the regime’s allies have acknowledged the need for a negotiated settlement including some kind of power-shift in the Syrian capital. However, Russia, represented by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, will not agree to any plan that necessarily has Bashar al-Assad stepping aside. The long-time military partnership between Moscow and the Assad dynasty—massive arms deals and the fact that Syria hosts a Russian naval base in Tartus—is too important.

Five main factors preclude Western or Arab intervention, making the Syrian conflict endlessly frustrating for those who have to both live within and witness its horrors: The opposition’s lack of coherence and unity; the potential explosion of an Iraq-like sectarian powder keg; Iran- and Russia-backed artillery and logistical support for Assad; the Russian/Sino dissension in the U.N. Security Council; and a war weary and increasingly austerity-bent West. Israel, both condemning Assad’s brutality and afraid of a more radical Islamic takeover, remains ambivalent and divided.



With military intervention against Assad unlikely and a protracted civil war ensuing, Turkey is in a quandary due to its rapidly deteriorating relationship with Damascus. A war of words was to be expected, with Turkey lumped into the group of nations “legally, ethically, and politically responsible for the crimes committed by the terrorist groups” according to Syria’s information minister.x Turkish officials claim Syria is now supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) separatists, whom the Turks have been battling in the Southeast and Iraq.xi But there are more pressing matters: Not only are refugees multiplying, but as of April, cross-border skirmishes have started to flare upix —and these are poised to escalate. The Turkish army has mobilized at the border and scrambled warplanes, after Syrian anti-aircraft guns downed a Turkish F4 that briefly strayed into it neighbor’s airspace.

This posturing, without any diplomatic front, may lead to Prime Minister Erdogan’s most extreme option, full-on war. Though his citizenry is less than thrilled about this prospect.[xii] In fact, Turkey’s foreign ministry has already had to deny reports that it is gearing up for an attack on Syria aimed at regime change.[xiii] As noted above, there are several reasons military escalation is a bad idea. First and foremost, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has rejected it, implying that Turkey would be on its own.[xiv] Without U.S./NATO support, there is no guarantee of victory against Syrian forces bolstered by Iranian and Russian weapons and advisors as well as terrorist proxies. Should Turkey conspire with anti-Assad nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to remove the dictator covertly, the result would invite a similarly destabilizing mess, if not a Syrian declaration of war.

On the purely hypothetical other hand, if Erdogan were to make a friendly deal with Damascus and expel the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, he risks alienation and anger from the U.N., NATO and all of his Sunni neighbors. The rather unthinkable move would be a reputation-damaging betrayal striking at the heart of Turkish pride and integrity. And Syrian refugees would be led into a slaughterhouse.


The Turkish government has no choice but to protect its border and therefore enable Syria’s foes—and its growing list of defectors. However, if Ankara decided to change tactics and open up a diplomatic line to Damascus, this could be used as a bargaining chip. And indeed, it is in Turkey’s best interest to act as negotiator between the hostile parties and move to the forefront of the peace-plan effort—as it has done between Syria and Israel and the U.S. and Iran.xi With far more leverage than the United Nations, in the form of both threats and assistance, the Turks needs to be open to talks with Tehran, Moscow and most of all Bashar al-Assad himself. Prime Minister Erdogan should be sitting where Kofi Annan has sat and must work to bury the hatchet. The brutal dictator, despite his crimes against humanity, is not going anywhere. (While high-level defections continue, as with Brigadier General Manaf Tlass in July, they are all Sunni officers and mostly those who were already under house arrest.) Without foreign intervention, this civil war has the potential to play out for years.

Though the opposition will be virulently against this course, Turkey, as their host and defender, has considerable leverage over them as well—and no other nation or group has it. Turkish soldiers must be at the border, ready to protect the Syrian opposition and refugees, but they must take care never to provoke Syria’s armed forces. Foreign Minister Davutoglu should be at every meeting between Clinton and Lavrov and Annan and Assad. That the ever-convening international community has not worked to press this initiative shows a lack of will to end the bloodshed as well as a delusional dream that Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite accomplices will step down. The goal is a ceasefire, effectively saving thousands of civilian lives, and only one country has the ghost of a chance at working toward a real one.

Turkey has been acknowledged as a Muslim beacon of prosperity and liberalism in the Middle East and has indeed made admirable choices, often at once pragmatic and idealistic, during the Arab Awakening. But it has watched, waited and reacted long enough. The fledgling democracy must take the opportunity to assert itself as the major regional player and pursue an aggressive role as peacemaker—which will gain it the respect of the West without alienating it from the greater Middle East or Russia. Turkish expertise and tradition in balancing secular and Muslim government should be exported to Libya, where thousands of Turks reside and where business cooperation may help to stabilize the fractured nation. It should be offered to an Egypt grappling with an identity swinging between a military junta and religious populists. In Syria, the Turks are the best suited to build the bridge connecting the regime in Damascus and the scattered opposition. That bridge, as flimsy as it may be, is desperately needed to stop the daily massacres and the growing sectarian tragedy that is already set to poison future generations. It goes without saying that Turkey itself should lead by example, clean up its own back yard with respect to the Kurdish question, Armenia and Greece, and shed its antiquated and artificial attempts to gird it nationalist pride by suppressing non-Turks. To be seen as fervent in trying to solve these issues at home and taking the reins of the region’s conflicts would bestow Turkey with true national pride and international prestige.

[i] Long, David E.; Reich, Bernard; Gasiorowski, Mark, editors. The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa, Sixth Edition. Westview Press: Boulder, CO, 2011.

[ii] Long, David E.; Reich, Bernard; Gasiorowski, Mark, editors. The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa, Sixth Edition. Westview Press: Boulder, CO, 2011.

[iii] “12 Nabbed in Feb 28 Coup Case” Hurriyet Daily News, April 19, 2012. www.hurriyetdailynews.com/12-nabbed-in-feb-28-coup-case.aspx?pageID=238&nID=18855&NewsCatID=338

[iv] Human Rights Watch, hrw.org

[v] “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Embracing ‘People’s Power’.” Gallia Lindenstrauss.

European Institute of the Mediterranean. March 2012.


[vi] “U.S. Warns Egypt’s Military Over “Power Grab.” Aljazeera English. June 7, 2012. www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/06/201261813938457956.html

[vii] “How the Military Won the Egyptian Election.” Time. Jay Newton-Small and Abigail Hauslohner. July 9, 2012.


[viii] “Turkey Is Big Winner of Arab Awakening.” Democracy Digest. November 2011.


[x] “Turkey Allows Limited Access to Syrian Refugee Camp.” Hurriyet Daily News. Turkey. June 19, 2011.


[xi] “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Embracing ‘People’s Power’.” Gallia Lindenstrauss.

European Institute of the Mediterranean. March 2012


[xii] “The Tide Begins to Turn.” The Economist. July 7, 2012. www.economist.com/node/21558276

[xiii] “Report: Turkey Tells West It Might Launch Offensive Against Syria.” Today’s Zaman. Turkey. June 27, 2011.


[xiv] “U.S. Tells Turkey to Back Off Syria.” NOW Lebanon. Tony Badran. March 22, 2012.


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