On Monday, I blogged that I thought Turkey’s role in helping urge/midwife a successful push for reform in Syria could be key. I gave a few reasons for this– chiefly, the good relations between the two countries and the length (800 miles) of their common border.
Yesterday, Turkey’s intel chief Hakan Fidan was in Damascus, and reported to have been discussing the need for reform with his hosts. (Meanwhile, Turkish PM Erdogan was in the Kurdish-Iraqi capital of Irbil and the Shiite-Iraqi capital, Najaf. As I tweeted at the time: “It’s hard work running a neo-Ottoman empire!” But really: Erdogan’s outreach to neighbors all round, including to Kurds, has been very notable.)
I’ve written quite a lot about Turkey and Syria on this blog over the past two years– check out the archives, including for reporting from good trips I’ve made to the two countries since summer 2009.
Based on all this, I could summarize my views on what Turkey can “offer” to a democratizing Syria– and, perhaps, to a number of other truly democratizing Middle Eastern countries– as follows:
- * Between them, Turkey’s current AK Party government and its longstanding and increasingly sturdy democratic constitution offer a great model for how a country can both be an open, west-friendly liberal democracy and be ruled by a party that is intentionally mildly Islamist. Turkey’s political history– through the aggressive secularism and tight ethnonationalism of the Kemalists, to the point it has arrived at today– is fascinating. The Kemalists made several good contributions to the country’s political and economic development. But it took the AKP to transcend the boundaries of ethnonationalism that constrained Ankara’s ability to have good relations with most of its neighbors– and indeed, with all those of its own citizens who are not ethnic Turks.
* Turkey offers a great example of a generally peaceful transition from a regime in which the military used to have a commanding sway (underlined by periodic coups and soft coups against the elected government) to one in which the democratic principle of civilian control of the military is now much more deeply entrenched and respected. For Syria, this could be a very valuable lesson– though we need to remember that Syria is still in a state of war with Israel, which continues to occupy (and indeed, has annexed) the strategic Golan region. So the military’s role in politics and society is more complex there than in Turkey. Of course, a truly engaged and fair-minded U.S. diplomacy could– and should– speedily bring an end to Israel’s occupation of the Golan. That would be one of the best contributions Washington could make to democratization in Syria! The record of the peace negotiations of the 1990s (about part of which, I wrote a book for USIP) is a great basis from to start.
* Turkey offers a great economic model to Syria and other Middle Eastern democratizers. The Turkish economy has been booming in recent years– including during the period after the west’s financial collapse of September 2008. It seems to be sturdily structured; and Turkish business leaders (like many other Turkish institutions) have done a great job of extending their contacts, their contracts, and their influence into many areas of the former Ottoman space– as well as the former Soviet space.
* Turkey has offered a great “social” model to Syrians and other Middle Easterners, as well. Syrians at different levels of society with whom I have spoken in recent years emphasize that they strongly welcome the Turkish model as much more attractive than the Iranian model of society, which is the other major pole of influence on governmental thinking.
Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that for the past few years many Syrians have been deeply in love with Turkey– for a number of reasons. One of these, certainly, has been the straightforward, principled stance that the AK government has adopted toward Israel. Remember that in 2008, Ankara did a lot to spearhead and facilitate a very promising round of quiet peace talks between Syria and Israel. Then, in December 2008 Israeli PM Olmert abruptly broke off the proximity talks he was holding in Turkey in connection with that effort– and he returned to Israel to launched the assault against Gaza that was so appropriately named “Cast Lead.” The Turks felt completely betrayed and used by Olmert in that regard– a fact that led to Erdogan’s stiff behavior toward Israeli Pres. Shimon Peres at Davos shortly after. But Erdogan felt betrayed precisely because he had been deeply committed to the success of the earlier peace talks. That good motivation and good energy should certainly not be forgotten.
Syrians across the board also really appreciate the kind of lifestyle model they find when they visit Turkey– as, increasingly, they do in droves, thanks to the abolition of visa requirements across the long shared border. Syrian intellectuals wonder earnestly how long it would take their country to catch up with the kind of economy and life they see in eastern Turkey– and that they see portrayed on the many Turkish soap operas that now compete very well, along with their own, Damascus-produced soaps, across the whole Arab media market.
One notable thing that’s happened along the way is that the resentment that an earlier generation of Syrians still felt at the fact that colonial France had gratuitously (in their view) “given away” the whole ethnic-Arab province of Alexandretta to Turkey on the eve of WWII has now just about completely dissipated. That province, now Hatay in Turkey, is just another part of Turkey that Syrians like to visit.
… Well, I don’t have time to write more here about this. Democratizing this regime in Syria is not an easy prospect for anyone to undertake, even if Pres. Asad has the best of intentions. (And, as I noted, trying to do this while a belligerent Israel still occupies Mount Hermon and an additional huge chunk of Golan, and makes periodic belligerent declarations towards Syria makes it even harder.) But as I noted in my last blog post, Turkey has a strong incentive to try to undertake the task successfully. The suggestion I lightheartedly made there that Syria might benefit from having its own AK Party– a moderately Sunni-Islamist party that delivers good governance in a climate of great respect for ethnic and religious minorities, and that deals generally successfully with the complexities of disentangling the military from the reins of governance– is actually one that might be worth exploring further… Though we should note that Turkey’s AK (“Justice and Development”) Party took many years, and several rounds of serious problems, before it was able to come to power.
And what might Washington’s position in all this be? I am still very concerned that the State Department holds far too many people at high levels who furthered their careers under the aggressively Israeli-controlled parameters of the Clinton and GWB administrations, and who therefore harbor far more kneejerk opposition to this Turkish government than is warranted. (As we saw, indeed, with their disgraceful response to the Mavi Marmara incident last year.) But it is high time Washington overcame those biases and sensitivities. Indeed, given how deeply involved the Obama administration has now, willy-nilly, become in issues of hands-on governance in numerous Arab countries, those old-fashioned biases toward Israel are now much more of a burden than they ever were before. So let’s hope that– at least when dealing with decades-long NATO ally Turkey, and its role in the Middle East– they can figure out a different, more constructive way to proceed.