Monday, May 16, 2011

Turkey – Iran Rivalry Over Syria

The on-going opposition public protests in Syria are watched by the neighbouring countries and the West closely. However, a possible change in Syria will probably affect Turkey and Iran the most. Both countries, which can be argued to be having the most influence on Syria, are trying to have the developments become in their benefit. Although Turkey and Iran have common concerns over “instability and Kurdish problem” regarding the protests in Syria, it can be seen that both have different positions. This situation is also reflected in the foreign policy statements of both countries.

It can be argued that Turkey is facing a dilemma with respect to the incidents in Syria. Turkey has improved her relations with Syria incrementally since 1998. During the period in which Syria was excluded from the international community owing to the 2003 Iraqi War and then assassination of Rafic Hariri, Turkey has continuously supported the authority of al-Assad. Syria, after this period, was able to abolish the international isolation mostly thanks to Turkey. Despite the pressures on Syria by the West, Turkey has demonstrated that she trusts Bashar al-Assad in making reforms. For that sake, “under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian project that realizes reforms in the country and cooperates with the West partially out of the county and diverges from Iran continuously” has been supported by Turkey. According to this view, any pressing and isolationist policies realized on Syria will not produce results. Scenarios about a regime change will generate new instabilities like in Iraq. Therefore, during the process which requires the long run, making “reform rather than revolution” is the most appropriate option. Hence, the supported idea is that “rather than the violence-favouring figures which support Iran within the regime, Turkey-supporting and change-favouring Bashar al-Assad should be supported, even if partially. This policy maintained for a long while successfully and generated some results. The relations between the USA and Syria have considerably improved, the Association Agreement between Syria and the EU was realized and tension with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan came to an end. Syria, with the inspiration of Turkey as well, depicted a picture in which she contributed to stability in Lebanon. The period, which is believed to support the diversion of Syria from Iran, has also been supported by the West. However, with the spread of public protests commenced in the Middle East, in general, to Syria, Turkey’s Syria policy and her support to Bashar al-Assad started to be questioned. Because, according to Turkey, Bashar al-Assad is a “leader that can make reforms considering the demands of his public.” But although al-Assad authority took some steps such as the abolition of the state of emergency, he opted to harshly supress the public protests through the involvement of the army. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu expressed his disappointment in his interview with Aslı Aydıntaşbaş from Milliyet Newspaper. Davutoğlu expressed that “Bashar al-Assad has not said no to reforms but he thinks that he could extend it over time. However, he got late to do some things in time. Now, some things have lost their meanings. Now we want urgent developments in Syria.” Aslı Aydıntaşbaş expressed her impression from the interview that “Turkey has decreased her expectations about Bashar al-Assad in making the right moves considerably”

The most important reason about Turkey’s disappointment is that “Syria is listening to Iran, rather than Turkey”. Iran perceives the developments in Syria as vital threats. Because, a possible regime change will threaten Iran’s alliance with Syria, and change the balance of power with Israel not in favour of herself. In case of a regime change in Syria, being one of the possible authority alternates, Mohammed Taifur, the Secretary General of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, declared in an interview that “We do not take the Iran model into consideration at all. For us and other Arab countries, Turkey is the model. As in Turkey, we want transparent elections. Turkey model is the most suitable for us”, which shows that Iranian concerns have a concrete basis. Thus, it is seen that Iran supports the Baath regime without any condition. Iranian officials evaluate the protests as “the conspiracy of the West, USA and the Zinonists”. Hence, Syrian authorities do not trust any actors, including Turkey, as much as they trust Iran.

The primary concern of the Syria-like authoritarian regimes is “regime security”. When this is under threat, all other subjects lose their vitality. From the perspective of Iran as well, public protests should be supressed under any conditions. The US Department of State posited that “with regard to suppression of protests in Syria by Iran, they have trustworthy intelligence that Iranians help Syrian security forces”. Syrian regime, by its nature, focused on suppressing the public protests without considering reform pressures within the current atmosphere. This brings about questioning Turkey-Syria relations. Here, one can argue that both Turkey and Syria got mutually disappointed. Expecting unconditional support, Syria probably observed the statements of the Prime Minister, Erdogan, saying that “we do not want new Hama and Humus”. Similarly, Turkey gets uncomfortable with Bashar al-Assad acting in unison with Iran without considering any suggestions of Turkey.

Turkey has not found the expected reaction from the Bashar al-Assad regime, which she has supported against the West using her credibility. This has left Turkey within difficult position against the West, and it will prevent the relations with Syria to be in the same way from now on. The costs of being in the same picture with Syria will increase more. Even though there is disappointment within Syria, in the medium-term she will need Turkey again. Because, Iran, which has been trusted by Syria unconditionally, will act no role in recovering the international isolation that Syria will be having after all of the developments. At this point, it seems very difficult for Turkey to help Syria as she did in 2003 and 2005. All these possibilities will be realized when the regime is preserved with the suppression of all the public protests.

The matter that has been neglected in Turkey in the last decade and recent developments is to answer to the question whether “Syrian regime can make reforms”. There may be some mistakes made in understanding the nature of Syrian regime, the analysis of stance of Bashar al-Assad within the regime. It has been seen that change-favouring group within regime is not as powerful as the one that is against change. The way Syria supresses the public protests has also weakened the perception of “violence-favouring mighty figures within the regime against reformist Bashar al-Assad”. It is also seen that when it comes to regime security, all the groups do not get diverged that much. Violence-favouring figures such as Maher al-Assad, Rami Maalouf who are close to Iran depend on the political and military support from Iran, rather than considering the reform pressures. Even though Turkey got close relations with Syria in the last decade, the alliance between Iran and Syria had gotten its roots in the early 1980s. On the matter of security, close cooperation is maintained. Ideological convergence between Arab Alawite Syrian elites and Shia Iran should also be added to these factors.

Within the context Syria, another aspect that leaves Turkey in a difficult position is to question the general Middle East politics. Turkey, in the last years, has put the principles of “legitimacy” and “standing by the oppressed” into the basis of the Middle East policy. For that sake, she criticized the attacks of Israel to civilians in Gaza harshly, and regarding Egypt a speech was given about the need “to consider the demands of the public”. One of the important reasons for the increased Turkish influence in the Middle East region is the popularity gained within the public. It is also seen that the protestors in Syria expect support from Turkey. However, Turkey acts timidly in criticizing the al-Assad authority because of some reasons such as having close relations with Syria and the potential of a change in having negative ramifications on Turkey. This creates a problem of legitimacy by creating a dilemma between Turkey’s support of change rather than status quo and standing by the public against the regimes. Waving the Turkish flag for so many years, the Libyan public, for the first time, attacked the Turkish Consulate. The same threat is also applicable for the Syrian opposition public who argue to trust Turkey.

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