Further thoughts on Syria, Turkey, and democracy

This Monday, Nov. 28, I’ll be speaking at a 2pm symposium in Washington DC on the topic “The Future of Syria: Political Turmoil and Prospects of Democracy”. It is organized by SETA-DC, the Washington DC branch of the Ankara-based SETA (Foundation for Economic, Political and Social Research.) Also speaking will be Erol Cebeci, Executive Director of SETA-DC and until recently a parliamentarian for the AKP.
Longtime readers of this blog will be aware that I have followed Turkish-Syrian relations for some time here; and back at the beginning of the current political turmoil in Syria I was arguing that Turkey’s AKP government was uniquely positioned and perhaps uniquely motivated to be the principal power mediating the regime-opposition negotiation in Syria that I saw, and still see, as overwhelmingly the best way out of Syria’s impasse.
Since I started expressing that position publicly, back in May, several important further developments have occurred. Principally, of course– and just as I predicted back in the March-May period– the confrontation between the regime and the opposition in Syria has continued; both sides have demonstrated resiliency; and the casualty toll has continued tragically to grow. There have also been these other developments:

    * Turkey’s AK government has shifted into a position of much stronger support for the Syrian opposition, with PM Erdogan now openly calling for the resignation of Syria’s President Asad, while leaders and members of the militarized, oppositionist ‘Free Syrian Army’ have been given considerable freedom to organize in the encampments of Syrian refugees in Turkey.
    * Attempts by western governments to win a UNSC resolution that would, as with Resolution 1970 in re Libya, have provided a basis for future military action against Syria were rebuffed when both Russia and china vetoed it.
    * The Arab League has launched its own strong-seeming diplomatic and political intervention that requires the Syrian government to end the use of repression and violence, engage in negotiations with the opposition, and allow the entry of Arab league monitors– actually, the deadline for that latter step is today.
    * The Arab League-cum-NATO military action against Libya (which was also supported by NATO member Turkey) had been cited as a desired precedent by many in the Syrian opposition. That action was eventually successful in taking over the whole of Libya and killing President Qadhafi. But it took them seven months and a lot of bloody fighting to achieve that; and the outcome inside Libya has been very far from what most pro-democracy, pro-rights activists in the west had hoped for.

So obviously, there will be a lot to discuss with my SETA colleagues next Monday.
One thing that has been much on my mind in recent days is the range of possible effects that the situation in Syria might have on the prospects for democracy not only in Syria but also in Turkey. Of all the Middle Eastern forces currently giving support to a Syrian opposition that claims to pursue the goal of democracy, the only one that any has any credible claim itself to uphold and practice the values of democracy is Turkey. The idea that Saudi Arabia, other GCC countries, Jordan, or the currently military-ruled regime in Egypt has any credibility in saying it seeks the goal of democracy is completely laughable. So it strikes me that sincere supporters of democracy around the world who want to see a democratic and accountable outcome in Syria should pay particular attention to the role that Ankara might yet play there.
It is also the case that for me, one of the bedrocks of any commitment to democracy is a commitment not to use violent means to resolve differences of opinion or politics among fellow-citizens, however deepseated and sensitive these differences may be. Democracy is not really– or perhaps, not only– about elections, which are at best only a technical means to reaching a democratic end. (Elections, remember, can be and are used by all kinds of profoundly rights-abusing regimes.) Democracy is about having a fundamental respect for the equality of all human persons and establishing a set of political mechanisms that allow citizens of one state (and eventually, of the whole world– though we are still a long way from that) to live together peaceably and over the long term while allowing the different communities within that state to live out their own vision of the good life so long as this does not impinge on the rights of others.
Turkey is a country in which many different kinds of social groups live together. These include members of the Sunni-Turkish majority. They also include members of ethnic, religious, and sectarian minorities. They include people who are highly secular and people who are highly pious and for whom “the good life” is necessarily one defined by religious norms. They include highly sophisticated, “Europeanized” urbanites, and people much more rooted to the traditional ways of villages and small towns. Yet somehow, as a result of decisions taken throughout the course of Turkey’s modern history– including both the Kemalist era and the post-Kemalist era– nearly all these different groups have been able to find a way to come together and agree on the (still-evolving) rules of a democratic order for their country.
I have long thought of this as an amazing achievement. Of course, it is still incomplete. But still, Turkey’s people have come so far away from both Ottoman-era theocracy and the intolerant, ethnocratic militarism of Kemalist rule that I think this is an achievement to be acknowledged and celebrated by democrats everywhere.
Turkey’s longest land border is its border with Syria– more than 500 miles long, as I recall. If there is ethnosectarian breakdown in Syria, can Turkey be insulated from that, I wonder? And if so, at what cost?
… Well, the events in Syria are moving fast, and will doubtless continue to do so over the coming three days. So I shan’t complete gathering my thoughts for Monday afternoon’s presentation until that morning.
As a side-note here, I also want to send my (only slightly qualified) congratulations to my friends at the Crisis Group for having once again produced a very sane and timely analysis of the situation in Syria. In the Conclusion to this study, they write:

    That the current crisis and future transition present enormous risks is not a reason to defend a regime that offers no solution and whose sole strategy appears to be to create greater hazards still. Optimally, this would be the time for third-party mediation leading to a negotiated transition.
    … However unlikely they are to succeed, mediation efforts ought to be encouraged in principle, and none should be automatically dismissed. The focus should remain for now on the Arab League initiative, the most promising proposal currently on the table. For international actors or the opposition to rule out dialogue or negotiations with the regime would be to validate its argument that nothing short of its immediate fall will be deemed satisfactory. At the same time, Damascus should not be given an opportunity to gain time, nor should it be offered concessions in the absence of tangible signs that it is acting in good faith. Should the regime present a genuine, detailed proposal backed by immediate, concrete steps on the ground – again, an implausible scenario – mediated talks with the opposition should swiftly begin.

The report goes to some lengths to spell out the massive risks involved in any non-negotiated resolution in Syria, which is good. And they highlight the extreme political incompetence of the Asad regime, which I also think is something well worth doing. But I think they let the opposition off too lightly; and I really do not see that that the Arab League as such is in any position to negotiate the kind of transition– that is, a negotiation to a truly democratic, rights-respecting and accountable political system– that I see as being the one best able to prevent the outbreak (or continuation) of further internal violence in Syria, going forward.
Throughout my years in Lebanon during the early years of the civil war there, I saw at first hand how an “Arab League peacekeeping mission” there was used all along by all the different Arab powers to pursue their own, often highly divisive agendas and thus became yet another factor that prolonged the fighting and the suffering there. And I have no reason to believe that the Arab League is in any better position today to plan and run a constructive peacekeeping mission in Syria. In addition, as noted above, it is amazing for anyone truly concerned about pursuing a more democratic and accountable Syria going forward to think that the governments now running the Arab League are well positioned or well suited to help realize that goal. Hence I would like to keep alive the possibility of a role for democratic Turkey in spearheading a serious push for negotiations– something that the Crisis Group’s report doesn’t mention.
(On the Arab League, and Qatar’s rapidly shifting political role in regional politics, As’ad AbouKhalil has had four excellent short pieces in Al-Akhbar English in the past couple of weeks. You can access them all via this web-page.)

8 thoughts on “Further thoughts on Syria, Turkey, and democracy

  1. Rac

    Castro once described the Organization of American States as ‘Ministry of the Colonies’ for Washington. Arab League is taking over that mantle now that South American governments are getting used to charting their own course.

  2. Abdelhafid Dib

    What about one week zero-killing !
    This suggestion is addressed to to Syrian regime to take positive steps to stop repression and killing his people and establish a serious dialogue among all political wings . although my dislike of conspiracy theory , the slogan الشعب يريد و الغرب يستفيد ( belongs to one of my close friends) ” the people want and the west will benefit ” still poses a big question in my mind. in my viewpoint, there is a hidden political agenda taken by GCC and Turkey and strongly backed by western powers which make Arab spring turned into a mined revolution and the case of Libya serves a good example.
    Hafid

  3. Arnold Evans

    Groups can’t be able to establish zones where there is no national security presence. Any country would violently put down any attempt to do that.
    I don’t know how much support Assad and Assad’s policies have in Syria. I don’t know if he could win an election of if there is a party or group of parties that could beat him.
    We can’t find out until the whole country is stable enough at least for polls. And if the opposition is using arms to create areas outside of Syrian sovereignty, it is preventing the country from reaching that level of stability.
    I don’t know if Turkey could be an impartial arbitrator or if it has been brought to the opposition.

  4. bevin

    There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of well armed agents of foreign powers ranging the Syrian landscape intent on causing chaos, killing people and ensuring that violence does not die down.
    In the circumstances to call for a cease fire is naive: the Arab League and NATO don’t want a cease fire, they want a civil war. Those with long attention spans might recall the number of cease fires that Ghadaffi attempted to institute, in every case the imperialist backed rebels rejected them.

  5. Yousef

    Helena,
    I think it is important to explore the reasons why Syria felt it could afford to defy the Arab League deadline, which expired on 25 November.
    1. It is clear that Syria is not willing to change its narrative on the events of the past 8 months within its borders: external conspiracy, armed gangs, and the only solution it can pursue is the military/security one, while denying the existence of a political opposition.
    2. As a result, Syria is not willing to pull its military machine from population centers; give free access to human rights monitors, military or civilian observers, as well as international media, and open a genuine dialogue with the opposition, as the Arab League demanded.
    3. The Syrian regime is willing to risk further diplomatic and political isolation in the Arab world, as well as economic sanctions, knowing that the Arab League would avoid measures that could harm the Syrian people. The regime is also aware that international sanction regimes imposed on countries in recent decades have harmed the people, not the regimes.
    4. The most serious threat Syria faced was that the Arab League, having failed, would decide to internationalize the Syrian issue by seeking UN action. Some commentators expected that it would be difficult for Russia and China to defy the will of the Arab League, in addition to that of the US and Europe, and would, therefore, opt to abstain, as they did in the case of Libya.
    It appears, however, that the Syrian regime does not accept this notion. One Syrian “independent” analyst, writing in Alhayat on 26 November, seemed to count on Russia and China to continue casting veto on every draft resolution on Syria before the UNSC.
    In his view, the battle in Syria was in fact a geopolitical fight between the US/NATO (including Turkey) on the one hand, and Russia/China on the other, mainly over the future of Central Asia and the oil rich Caspian sea region. The writer pointed out that Turkey hosted the conference on the American project for the renewal of the old “Silk Road”.
    The implication is that Turkey’s membership in NATO is more important to that country than its relations with Syria, and since Iran is considered an obstacle on the new Silk Road, one way to remove it, or at least weaken it, is to target its close strategic ally, Syria. By the same token, Russia, China and the other members and observes in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), such as India and Iran, would do everything to thwart US/NATO efforts to make Central Asia a western sphere of influence. After all, in Russia’s view, NATO has already gone too far in extending its reach to Russia’s backyard, and China is being pushed around in the Pacific and the China Sea. Furthermore, those emerging economies, see an opportunity to take the front seat in the emerging world order, while western economies are in decline.
    If this is the thinking that drives the conduct of the regime in Syria, the current stalemate in Syria may soon develop into a protracted civil war. The people in this West Asian country, would continue to die for democracy, freedom and dignity, while the regime would continue to blame the killing of its people on a power struggle over Central Asia.
    The Arab League, however, left the door open, in case the Syrian regime would rethink its position.
    I look forward to your summary of the discussions in the DC symposium.

  6. pabelmont

    Turkey’s recent intervention to restrain the Syrian government is welcome to me, as is the Arab League’s efforts.
    I wonder, though, what it would take to get similar action w.r.t. Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians (of much longer duration than Syria’s crackdown) and w.r.t. Bahrain’s crackdown.

  7. salah

    Arnold Evans,
    “We can’t find out until the whole country is stable enough at least for polls.”
    In 2005 Iraq and Iraqi pushed to go to polls under US invasion and the megaphone News media all around took those polls as truthfully accurately and democratically elected Sectarian PM.
    Why on other places even under tyrants/ hated by US, US calls those polls face and not accurate and propagandist of those regimes?
    She done it Iraq but other not allowed, this is the New World Order.

  8. Patrick Cummins

    Dear Helena,
    In the past I think that you’ve expressed sympathy for the views of Peter Lee of the China Matters blog (http://chinamatters.blogspot.com). In his most recent article, Lee believes that Turkey, in cooperation with western governments and GCC states, is now actively supporting an insurgency in Syria.
    Money and weapons are said to be flowing in to insurgents based in Turkey. Some of this is coming from Libya, along with, it seems, a cadre of hardened Libyan fighters. Lee anticipates that ultimately Turkey will invade Syria with the blessing of western governments.
    I’m not sure what to make of all this, and wonder what you may think of it.
    – Patrick

Comments are closed.