Syrian-Turkish relations: Assad is not brave enough

Murat Sofuoğlu is the director of the Istanbul based think tank Ekopolitik. The organisation is engaged in peace making efforts in Northern Iraq, Northern Cyprus and in Turkey, mostly dealing with the so called „Kurdish question“. In an interview with buendia bee he explains his view on the Turkish-Syrian relations in the last years, the developments since the beginning of the uprising and why he thinks that the Iranian-Turkish struggle for influence in the regions has now reached Syria.

Murat Sofuoğlu - Director of Ekopolitik and peace activistbuendia bee: Mr. Sofuoğlu, could you, please, give us a short summary of the Turkish-Syrian diplomatic relations during the last years. How have they changed since the start of the uprising?

Sofuoğlu: At the moment the Tuskish-Syrian relations are getting tougher and tougher after they had been very good for many years.

In the 1990s Syria used to host [the leader of the outlawed Kurdish PKK] Abdullah Öcalan in Damascus for a long time. Another problem in that time was water, because there very many dams built in southeastern Turkey, which was causing a lot of fears in Syria. Because of these two factors, Turkey had very a difficult realtionship with Syria. Then 1999 the Turkish army declarated that if Syria would go on hosting Mr. Öcalan that would result in a war. Syria then sent Ocalan out of the country. After that the relation got warmer and warmer and this has continued until recent days, when the uprising started.

For many years Syria has been an isolated country. There were relations to Iran, but they were not intense, and there were realtions to Lebanon, but Syria was rather part of the conflict there, than gaining profit of that. After 1999 Turkey helped a lot to open Syria to the world. Interestingly and paradoxly, the more Syria opened up, its population got more and more resistant and demanding towards the regime. The people suddenly saw the world and while looking at each other they found themself being years behind global developments and did not feel comfortable with their position. So they took to the streets. Opening up to the world is a risky task, the Syran regime is realising that now. The Syrian population is connected to the people in Egypt and Tunesia and they raise the same demands now. They want democracy now and a government which respects their rights and doesn’t suppress them.

Both the Syrian and the Turkish government now have to take difficult decisions. Turkey doesn’t want so lose Syria as a partner after having so good relations particularily during the last decade. They both just had agreed on lifting the visa regulations, the border is almost open now for the citizens of both countries. As a result, many people who go against the goverment there now have even closer ties to Turkey. A lof of people come from Syria to Turkey now [as refugees]. And under this condition the Turkish deplomacy tries to advise the Syrian Regime and say: Please calm down, talk to the people who demand their rights, maybe you can change the government, make some concessions, you don’t have to go against them.

But the power and influence conflict between Turkey and Iran that has been going on in Iraq for years has now reached Syria. Turkey can not refuse the Syrian people’s demands and at the same time – for the sake of real politics – it doesn’t want to lose the Syrian government to Iran or other regional powers.

buendia bee: Who are the people ruling Syria, who is Basher Al Assad?

Sofuoğlu: Syria has now been a very long time governed by a minority, the Alevi elites in the Baath party, while the majority of the country is Sunni. (This is similar to the regime of Saddam Hussein who was a Sunni ruling a country with Shia majority and suppressing it.) In the 1980s there was a Schiit rebellion that was brutally suppressed by Bashir Al Assad’s family, thousands of people were killed then. In that time, interestingly, right after the Islamic Revolution, Iran under Khomeney used to support every Shiit movement in the world, i.e. In Lebanon, in the Palestinean territories, but about the massacres in Syria they didn’t say a word. Sometimes real politics get upper hand over human relations. So even in that time and despite the killings of their fellow believers, Iran was one of the very few countries that supported Syria.

The problem today is that the Assad family doesn’t want to lose power. They are not able to adapt themselfes to the peoples demands. Bashar Al Assad has powerful circles around him, he does not decide alone. Even if he wanted to change the strategy and make concessions, he would have to struggle with these circles, mainly inside his own family. But I don’t think he is brave enough to do that. As I understand the development, this familiy has decided to save their power, like Ghadaffi in Libya. That’s why they are looking to the end of the tunnel and feel themselfes in a safe positions, as long as there is at least Iran left as a supporting partner. The Syrian army is mostly composed of the Alevi minority and they are ready to fight a civil war.

buendia bee: What can Turkey and its government do at the moment?

Sofuoğlu: At the moment the Syrian government is coming more and more under the influence of Iran, while Turkey is losing that influence. At the same time you have an opposition in Syria that isn’t well organised. So Turkey is facing a dilemma: on the one hand there is no opposition that even could be supported and has the capability to rule the country, to take over control. On the other hand they can not support a government that is acting brutally against their own population.

Recently a meeting of some Syrian leading opposition figures took place in Antalya. So Turkey helps to organise that opposition. But since there has been much protest action in front of the conference are, both pro and anti Assad, the Turkish Foreign Ministery pretended to have nothing to do with that meeting. But in my understanding, when you allow opposition leaders to gather in your country then you give a massage to the ruling power. So the decisive factors in near future of Syria will be if and how the opposition would be able to get better organised or at least more united and the Assad Family’s determination to suppress the uprising.

It will also be interesting to see what would go on Iran. If the protests there would increase again the attention would be drawn away from Syria. [There are reports gathered from Syrian refugees in southern Turkey that there were Iranian soldiers fighting in Syria on the Regime’s side.]

buendia bee: How does all that influence the political landscape in the middle east?

Sofuoğlu: Western countries and the USA are supporting uprisings all over Arabia, maybe with the exception of some Gulf states. This is also true for Syria. Now the same western powers have serious problems with the regime in Iran. If the relations between Turkey and Iran get cooler and cooler, western powers support Turkey against Iranian influence. Turkey alone cannot solve all the problems in the Middle East by itself, that’s impossible. So there is kind of chess game going on. Western powers use Turkey to strengthen the democratisation efforts in the Arab world. Of course mostly the citizens there want democracy and freedom, but at the same time there is real politics.

buendia bee: Any expectation about the next steps of Turkish diplomacy?

Sofuoğlu: Turkey still doesn’t want to lose Assad and his family. They advise them to calm down and listen to the people’s demands. But I think that doesn’t work because Assad listens much more to the advise of the Iranians already. If the violence continues on such a high level then Turkey on day will have to totally end the support for the Assad family. And I think that day is getting closer.

buendia bee: Mr. Sofuoğlu, thanks for your time and the information you shared with us.

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