Yonca Poyraz Doğan’s guest for Monday Talk in Today’s Zaman has warned that if the interim AKP government continues to fight with the Kurds of Turkey using even harsher rhetoric than the discourse used in the 1990s, it would present Kurds to the hands of the fast emerging regional actors, Iran and Russia.
“With recent developments in Syria, the intensified [Russian] and [Iranian] weight in the region might lead to such dangerous changes as Turkey being torn apart if Turkey continues to follow its current Kurdish policy,” said journalist and writer Cengiz Çandar.
Çandar added that, at the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly where world leaders grappled with a multitude of global crises, including the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Turkish government continued to repeat the same old memorized lines:
“When you say Syria, the government says ‘security region, no-fly zone and Assad should fall.’ This is a non-starter as far as diplomatic perspective goes; from the military point of view, it was already impossible to establish a no-fly zone without US support. Now [that] Russia is getting in on the act in Syria, a security zone and a no-fly zone carry the potential of a US-Russian confrontation. So these zones are out of the question; it’s illogical to talk about them.”
Regarding the start of Russian air strikes in Syria, Çandar explained how it also carries a potential for a Turkey-Russia conflict.
Answering our questions, Çandar elaborated on the issues.
You have recently been to the United States and Moscow and you have often traveled abroad. What questions do you get from observers of Turkey?
Other nations have watched Turkey from abroad with perceptions laced with pessimism and a degree disappointment and wonder and marked with lots of questions. So, when they meet a person from Turkey, the questions asked and topics discussed have been shaped through the lens of this perception.
In this regard, Ahmet Davutoğlu said in New York that “what is as dangerous as domestic terrorism is perception terror [regarding Turkey] abroad.” Power circles in Turkey have often used the statement “Perception operation against Turkey.” And these power circles, since they act with an urge to stick to power no matter what, have begun to explain everything with the concept of “operation.” Now, the prime minister is talking about “perception terror” against Turkey — and “Turkey” refers only to those power circles. The same circle has been trying to mobilize for defense — which is totally appropriate given the mentality of this power circle which is moving from authoritarianism toward totalitarianism. To go back to the question, I have been asked by people overseas about Turkey’s current situation with worry and apprehension, and with negative adjectives. Why have they come to this point? They are able to write what we cannot here because they get stories from media representatives in countries which do not practice self-censorship. They develop opinions and perceptions accordingly. Perceptions develop from the image that a country projects, not from any other way.
What kind of impression did Davutoğlu leave in New York at the end of his talks and meetings with officials from different countries?
He did not leave any impression. Every day I read influential publications from a number of countries and I have not seen the name Davutoğlu in the news over the last weeks. Davutoğlu took a group of Turkish journalists with him to New York and they reported what he said in his meetings. When you go to the UN General Assembly, it is normal to have 30-40 meetings in a week because there is an environment conducive to these kinds of meetings. However, in order to understand what the world learned from Davutoğlu, we need to have a look at leading global publications and his name is not there. What does that mean? That means that he is not considered important. We living in Turkey are in a position to understand what Davutoğlu’s performance was in the past year and how his relations have been with [President Recep] Tayyip Erdoğan. In the last AKP congress, Davutoğlu was not able to get even one name that is close to him to the central decision board of the AKP; this means he has no power in the party. Don’t foreign observers notice this? And Davutoğlu was in New York at a time when developments in the axis of Syria supporters and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s latest moves have come to prominence so much that the international agenda has been occupied by US-Russia relations and projections related to this. So, Davutoğlu is not the main actor and with the policies he has followed so far, he has lost that chance forever.
‘Zero-sum policy does not work’
Why don’t we review the policy regarding Syria?
This is a policy that is a zero-sum game, which means, “The regime of [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad should fall and we will see what happens next.” However, there are not many buyers of this policy. If, as a regional power, you cannot present another approach to the issue, then at a time when Russia becomes prominent and the implications of US-Russia relations for the Middle East and Syria top the agenda of the international community, the media will not attach importance to Turkey and its prime minister, who does not have any different policies regarding Syria.
You argue that Turkey does not have a Syrian policy, merely positions. Would you elaborate on this idea?
Yes, Turkey has positions on Syria, not policies, because policies would have tactics and strategy, and Turkey lacks both. A former president told me, “We don’t have an exit strategy in Syria,” and I told him that if we don’t have an exit strategy that means we don’t have a strategy; we don’t have a policy. However, Turkey has a strategy regarding Kurds — President Erdoğan has said several times, and Davutoğlu has confirmed, that Turkey would prevent the establishment of a Kurdish entity in the north of Syria even if it is merely autonomous. Turkey collaborates with anybody who can prevent the formation of such an entity — [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] ISIL, al-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham, etc. — it does not matter who.
‘Turkey cannot be completely out of Syrian equation’
Would you say that in the eyes of the world, Turkey is completely out of the picture in regards to future of Syria?
It is hard to say that Turkey is completely out of the picture in regards to Syria because geography would not allow this to happen, no matter what the government’s policy is. In addition, UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon has said that it is necessary to seek a solution for Syria together with the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Plus, there are about 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Moreover, Turkey has always been in the picture because of its “negative” actions; even if we put aside how much support Turkey gives ISIL, it is known that Turkey supports other groups not so different ideologically from ISIL, such as al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham, plus Jaish al-Fateh, the Army of Conquest, which controls Idlib and the roads from Idlib to Latakia, threatening the strongholds of Assad’s government. Furthermore, the so-called secular Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, has been established in Turkey. Therefore, Turkey cannot be out of the Syrian equation because of all these elements. This is why it is totally strange that nobody in the world arena asks Turkey about its opinion when there is even military activity in the region triggering diplomatic activity.
By current military activity, you mean the Russian military buildup and air strikes in Syria…
Yes. Because of the sophistication of the weapon systems of Russia and their placement, this military activity triggers diplomatic activity. It is a new situation that requires a modification of the old positions. However, the Turkish government continues to repeat the same old mantra; when you mention Syria, the government says, “Security region, no-fly zone and Assad should fall.” This is a non-starter as far as the diplomatic perspective goes and from the military point of view, it was already impossible to establish a no-fly zone without US support. Now Russia is getting in on the act in Syria so a security zone and a no-fly zone carry the potential for US-Russian confrontation. So, these zones are out of the question; it’s illogical to talk about them.
‘Davutoğlu is in an imaginary world of his own’
Is there a chance that Davutoğlu might engage in consultations with the Turkish Foreign Ministry about the issue of Syria in order to revise the zero sum game policy?
Davutoğlu likes the word “consultation,” but the word and Davutoğlu is an oxymoron. Davutoğlu is in an imaginary world of his own. It is nice to have dreams, but if you are in the position of being a decision maker, then you need to face harsh realities, make judgments and take positions required by those realities despite your personal feelings and tendencies.
If Davutoğlu cannot make this U-turn, can President Erdoğan do it?
He has this ability and he has such a strong personality and we have seen him making U-turns regarding many other issues. If developments come to this point, he can press Davutoğlu in this regard, but in my opinion, developments have not come to this point yet. For Erdoğan, who also has ideological commitments like those of Davutoğlu, the number one issue is the survival of his own political power. If Erdoğan perceives that the Syrian issue has come to a point where it threatens his political survival, then he can make a U-turn. Ahmet Davutoğlu does not have a power base, his power base is Tayyip Erdoğan. He comes from an intellectual background, but Erdoğan is a political animal — he is formidable, and whether you like him or not, he is an important figure with a huge power base.
Some observers are saying that US President Barack Obama might have a plan to get out of the region, and therefore, other players, like Iran and Russia, would become prominent. In this line, is it possible to talk about the implications of the recent US, Russia and Iran cooperation in some areas regarding Syria, especially for Turkey?
Let me first say that the United States and Russia are not on the same page: The US and Russia are competitors. And we also do not see the US in the same axis with Iran, either — anti-Iran Sunni power centers and Israel are allies of the United States. Despite the incompatibility of Obama and [Benjamin] Netanyahu, the United States needs to take Israel’s Iran allergy into consideration. The United States is the leading country in NATO and there is another NATO ally in the region: Turkey; there is also partner Israel; and there is also the topic of oil prices that is of great interest to such rival countries as China; and that brings in Saudi Arabia as another power center. As a country of institutions, the US cannot ignore all of that, and the US cannot leave the region to Iran. However, nuances are important in big power relations, especially for the smaller powers.
‘Policies of 1990s pushing Turkey into violence’
Would you elaborate on this idea?
For example, the détente policy of the United States with the Soviet Union or the normalization process of the US-China relations to balance the Soviet Union led to great changes in the world — this was even one of the invisible factors in ending the Vietnam War. Yes, the US and Iran might not be on the same page, but when Iran becomes a partner in the region for a solution, balances might change. With recent developments in Syria, more weight from Russia and Iran in the region might lead to such dangerous changes as Turkey being torn apart if Turkey continues to follow its current Kurdish policy of bringing PKK and terror concepts together as in the 1990s.
I am talking about being “torn apart” and not division or secession. We know this rhetoric — martyrs’ funerals, orphans, promises such as “this struggle will continue until terror is uprooted,” flag displays, polemics regarding Kurdish parties’ meetings and whether they displayed Turkish flags or not, etc. We have seen this movie before. If all of this is not related to the calculations made regarding the Nov. 1 snap election — even if it is, it might lead to uncontrollable dangerous developments — this policy is an even stronger repetition of the policies of the 1990s. This policy pushes Turkey into a climate of violence, and it is not possible to foresee where and how it might end as the whole region is burning. When we had the most bloody days of the Kurdish conflict in the 1990s, there were problems like the Palestine war; Lebanon was trying to heal the wounds of war; Iraq was in and out of the Gulf War, etc., but today there is a great hinterland for violence. Meanwhile, the Kurds are on the [political] stage.
Would you tell us how Kurds have been perceived differently by Turkey and the world?
The YPG [People’s Protection Units, Syrian Kurdish army] and PYD [Democratic Union Party] are the most resistant fighters against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL], and Iran’s number-one enemy is ISIL. Russia shows ISIL as its reason to come back to the region, and it supports Kurds. In his UN talk in New York, Vladimir Putin praised both the Assad regime and the YPG because of its fight against ISIL. In addition, the US is openly in cooperation with the PYD and YPG. And what Turkey’s prime minister does is tell Turkish journalists in New York that the PYD and YPG are extensions of the PKK and that they are terrorists!
Kurds are on the political stage by being the most resistant fighters against ISIL, which was identified by the international system as the number-one enemy. If you continue to fight the Kurds of Turkey with the rhetoric of the 1990s, you force Turkey into a climate of violence. Instead of welcoming the HDP as a legitimate actor in Turkey’s system and seeking ways for a final solution to the Kurdish issue with the help of the HDP, the government is trying to demonize the HDP. This not only forces Turkey into a climate of violence but presents the Kurds as gifts to the fast-emerging Russia-Iran axis in the region, which might lead to catastrophic outcomes for Turkey.
You don’t mean just the separation of Kurds from Turkey…
Everybody first thinks about physical separation, but there are worse things than physical division. There is a de facto division and a division in spirit, which is worse than physical separation. There might not be a physical separation but division in spirit might lead to a bloody civil war.
‘Putin announced Russia will protect Syrian regime from its enemies’
Do you think Russia’s move in Syria carries potential for a Turkey-Russia conflict?
There is such potential. Russia’s move in Syria is very important because it is a new situation in international politics. In every newspaper in the world, you can see Russia’s move in Syria in headline news and commentaries. Russia has placed weapons systems in Latakia, where Assad has his power base. Putin said that the Syrian regime is legitimate because it has been represented in the UN and he added that the biggest threat is ISIL and other terrorist elements. Putin announced that Russia will protect the Syrian regime from those elements. While French forces bomb Deir ez-Zor, far from Damascus where ISIL is, Russia bombs Homs because there are two ways to Latakia, one through Aleppo and Idlib and one through Homs — where there is no ISIL presence but all of the other groups that Turkey supports are. If Russia decides to move its military operations toward the north and Aleppo, what is Turkey going to do? This is an area where Turkey desires to have a security zone.
Can we say that Russia intends to protect the Syrian regime from Turkey?
Of course. The important thing for Russia is its interests in Syria and its wider strategic calculations. If Assad is replaced with somebody else who is in line with Russia’s interests, then Russia would not say that Assad remaining in power is essential, but if Russia articulates that, then it would mean Russia supporting Assad leaving power within a US-drawn frame. This is not a starting position of power for Russia. By saying that the Assad regime is legitimate, Russia gets more power and by doing this, it both lengthens the life of Assad and strengthens Assad against everything that wants to overthrow him. There are also some dilemmas here, like what a transition period would be like, with or without Assad. If it is going to happen without Assad, problems will be solved for some. But if it is going to happen with Assad, why would Assad administer a transition period that might not include him at the top position at the end? Now Russia has a military build-up in Latakia and says that the Syrian regime is legitimate and whoever is against it is a terrorist, Russia is strengthening the Assad regime and all of the actions by Russia in this regard are against Turkey.
Çandar started his career as a journalist in 1976 with the Vatan daily, spending time in the Middle East and Europe because of his opposition to the regime in Turkey following the military intervention in 1971. His areas of expertise are the Middle East, especially Lebanon and Palestine, and the Balkans, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina. He worked for several leading newspapers in Turkey and served as special adviser to the late President Turgut Özal in 1991-1993. During 1999-2000 he conducted research on Turkey in the 21st century as a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and as a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Currently, he is a columnist for the Radikal daily. He has written several books.