|Syria's Assad and Turkey's Erdogan in the good old days|
Can Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, in tandem with Iran’s Ali Khamenei, Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, turn the tables on Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan?
And does Ankara’s support of the protracted Syrian revolution risk wrecking Turkey the same way the Afghan war trashed Pakistan?
The possibilities are tenable, according to Jihad el-Zein, an old hand Lebanese political analyst.
According to his line of reasoning, penned in two installments (one last Tuesday and the second yesterday) for Beirut’s independent daily an-Nahar, criticism of Erdogan and his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) by the opposition and media has been joined by big business, which is now calling for much greater transparency by the state.
Zein notes that Umit Boyner, chairwoman of the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TUSIAD) and the leading Turkish business lobbyist, warned recently, “We are moving away from the rule of law day by day… We are watching the power struggle within the Turkish state with horror and an increased sense of insecurity.” Last week, she said polarization, hatred and enmity on the home front risked wasting Turkey’s “social, political and economic achievements.”
Meantime, says Zein, Ankara’s backing of regime change in Syria is circuitously exasperating Turkey’s problems with its Kurds and Alevis.
Of a total Turkish population of about 75 million, an estimated 15 million are Kurds and about another 15 million are Alevis. And the two sizable minorities are concentrated in Turkey’s southeast, next door to Syria.
Turkish Alevis and Syria's Alawites are distinctive communities and represent different strains of Islam (see Are Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis the same?). But a sectarian Sunnite-versus-Alawite conflict in Syria could potentially spill over into Turkey, causing tensions between its Alevis, who express sympathy for the Alawite-dominated Assad regime, and the government in Ankara.
Mired in its own conflict with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the southeast, Ankara cannot afford another major security problem there with the Alevis.
Turkey has an 882-km border with Syria, a second 499-km one with Iran and a third 352-km border with Iraq.
Inflamed by Syria, in concert with Iran and Iraq, Turkey's long-simmering war with the PKK has escalated in recent months, reaching death tolls unseen in more than a decade.
"Turkey's Kurdish conflict is becoming more violent, with more than 700 dead in 14 months, the highest casualties in 13 years," according to an International Crisis Group report.
Listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and the U.S., the PKK has been carrying out a bloody separatist war in Turkey's southeast since 1984. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far.
More importantly, Zein notes, a video released by Doğan news agency in late August showed nine Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) lawmakers, including BDP co-chair Gültan Kişanak, hugging and chatting with PKK militants along a highway in the eastern province of Hakkari.
The lawmakers told reporters the meeting was a chance encounter and not planned in advance.
And this week, Istanbul’s pro-BDP legislator Sebahat Tuncel was sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison for being a member of the PKK.
To borrow from USIAD’s Umit Boyner, says Zein, how does all this affect the future of Turkey’s achievements?
“There is no doubt,” he writes, “Turkey is today in Pakistan’s previous and current circumstances vis-à-vis Afghanistan since its occupation by the Soviet Union.
“The Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan at the hands of the Mujahedeen. But Pakistan has not been the same since. Its instability became entwined with its role in the Afghan war that has yet to come to a close.”
True, Pakistan was intended to be the Indian Muslims’ nation-state. It was far from being fundamentalist; its elites were secular-minded; and its army was aligned with the West.
“What led to Pakistan’s ruin is the leading role it played over the past three decades in the Afghanistan quagmire, according to Zein. “What disintegrated first and foremost was Pakistani society. The hundreds of thousands of fundamentalists – initially funded by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and backed by Iran – who crossed Pakistan on the way to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, destabilized Pakistani cities, provinces and society -- from Peshawar to Punjab to Sindh.
“This happened while the Pakistani army kept consolidating ties with the Taliban, notwithstanding its alliance with Washington.
“In short, the Mujahedeen won in Afghanistan but Pakistan seriously undermined its elites, institutions and economy in the process. The result is the spectacular metamorphosis of a declared nuclear weapons state to a quasi-rogue nation.”
Though always more successful economically than Pakistan, even in the era of its military coups, Turkey was fated in the 21st century to become the principal springboard for supporting the Syrian revolution, which evokes memories of Pakistan’s role against the Soviets.
Today, says Zein, “Turkey – but not Jordan or North Lebanon – is the main launching pad for action against the Assad regime.” This means Ankara should – and in fact started to – adapt to a new ballgame. It should attune to the influx of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, insurgents and defectors as well as Arab and non-Arab fighters.
“But what if the Syrian war dragged on?” Zein wonders. “What if the long Kurdish furrows along Syria’s northeastern border persisted for years as ‘Pakistan-ization’ turned Gaziantep into a new Peshawar and the road between Urfa and Azaz into a new Khyber Pass?
“There is no turning back in Syria, where regime change is inevitable. But what if the transition period proved drawn-out and impaired Turkey’s national fabric in the process of winning change in Syria?
“Turkey joined the Arab Spring fray from the Syrian door, which turned out to be the most dangerous, without being prepared.
“Erdogan gambled on inheriting Iran after a quick Syrian regime exit.
“He underestimated the enmity of the Russian Bear in the vicinity and overlooked the aptitude of the Saudi Camel to be Tehran’s inheritor in Syria instead of Ankara…”