Sowing in Syria, reaping in Turkey

Turkey had its own protection: it was a member of Nato. Syria and Iran were in the line of fire.

It was October 2011. I knew this would be my last evening with the distinguished Turkish journalist, Mehmet Birand, as we looked over the Bosphorus from my hotel in Istanbul. He had been fighting cancer bravely for quite some time but the extent to which his large frame had shrunk was a clear sign that the disease was getting the better of him. Birand had not allowed the disease to subdue his spirits. Quite to the contrary, he had seldom been as optimistic about Turkey’s place in world affairs. His country was not yet sowing the wind in Syria.

“All these years we have been a docile ally of the west” he said. “But today we can hold our head high as an independent nation, a dissident country in the Western Alliance”.
He enjoyed using the term “dissident”, like he had been freed from the straitjacket imposed on his nation by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Pasha. This sense of being “freed” was, in large measure, attributable to the manner in which Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, had expanded his electoral base from 36 percent in 2003, to 42 percent in 2007 and 50 percent in July 2011.

Geometric progression

The trick to ride the crest of popularity exceeding even Ataturk’s was to fall back on the formula of “independent action in foreign affairs”. This, in most Muslim countries, easily translates itself into anti Americanism. When defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, sought passage for US troops into Iraq in 2003, Erdogan refused because 90 per cent of the population were opposed to military action. His popularity grew in geometric progression.

With a considerable sense of theatre, he walked out on a bewildered Shimon Peres in Davos. He snapped ties with the Jewish state when a Turkish goodwill vessel carrying succor to Gaza was attacked by Israel. This was a total reversal of Turkey’s relations with Israel.

Quite shrewdly, Erdogan had charted a path which went down well with the Arab street. He played this audacious hand because he knew that retribution would not be visited upon him for being a ‘rejectionist.’ Turkey had its own protection: it was a member of Nato. Saddam Hussain and Qaddafi had been made examples of. Syria and Iran were in the line of fire. Their guilt? Having the temerity for being independent.

That is why Turkey was an awkward ‘dissident’ in the western alliance as Birand put it. Further, as part of its policy of peace with all its neighbours, Ankara had befriended Teheran to a point where the latter was willing to hand over its nuclear material to Ankara for safe keeping. All of this was deeply disturbing.

Could Erdogan be manipulated? Of course he could, if only one knew his background. Erdogan and his colleague, President Abdullah Gul, had learnt their paces in politics in the company of Necmettin Erbakan whose Islamist Refah party came to power riding a wave of resentment in Turkey against the televised brutalization of Bosnian Muslims, once subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

Guardians of the secular state from the Ataturk era, the Turkish army dethroned Erbakan. But a determined Refah party reinvented itself as a toned down Conservative party without abandoning its Islamist base. Under the leadership of Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, the new Justice and Development party (AK party) strode out.

For two and a half terms Erdogan and Abdullah Gul kept up a plausible manner: they were non ideological, moderate Muslims. Yes, there was an occasional skirmish on trifles like headscarves for women but no serious threat of a Shariah flag being hoisted on a nation restored by Ataturk.

Look at the nature of the plot and the naive simplicity of the expected outcome. Endorsed by the US and Europe, financed by Saudis and Qataris, helped by Turkey, armed by everyone, groups not dissimilar from the ones the US has been fighting in the Af-Pak region, are expected to create conditions which will cause a regime change in Damascus.

Why will this heartless, remote controlled operation bring about regime change in Damascus? After all, it took a full-fledged US occupation of Iraq, destruction of the Baath structure, wiping out the secret service, killing of Saddam Hussain and all over ten years, before the US could leave Iraq in the sort of mess that country is in today.

Yes, these Islamic brigands can destroy Syria, but not change the regime which is fighting with its back to the wall and has been quite as brutal as the imported Islamists creating mayhem in the countryside.

Now that the two sides have fought each other to a standstill, comes the moment of reckoning for the regional promoters of the mayhem. This is the moment that will change the region. Witness the escalating protests in Turkey.

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