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Turkey and the transition in Syria May 24, 2011

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.
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AFP and other outlets reported today that leaders of Syria’s still very inchoate opposition movement will be holding an organizing meeting in Antalya from May 31 through June 2.

Just around the same time this news came out, I made a presentation at a small panel discussion on Syria organized by the Washington, DC-based Middle East Institute. My charge was to survey the various regional dimensions of the ongoing events in Syria. I ended up focusing mainly on the role Turkey potentially might play in helping to facilitate the successful transition to a functioning and egalitarian democracy in Syria that I believe would be far and away the best outcome for the country’s 21 million people. The following are notes based on the most important things I said there…

Turkey has, of course, the longest of its land borders (over 500 miles long) with Syria; and this is also the longest land border that Syria has with any neighbor. Each country is an important geographic “gateway” that links the other country with a significant hinterland behind it. Straddling that border, too, are the ethnic Kurds whose political role and status is a significant issue for both countries. In addition, as I have seen very vividly during visits to Syria in recent years, Syria’s people and government alike all seem to have very warm attitudes toward Turkey, seeing it as a compelling model for the kind of country that they would like Syria to become.

Meanwhile, as we know, the political situation inside Syria has become extremely tense and violent over the past three months. Demonstrations and protests have proliferated in many Syrian provincial towns and cities and  in the outer suburbs of Damascus, too.  The country’s Baathist rulers have cracked down– not as hard. certainly, as Pres. Hafez al-Asad did in 1982; but still, by now, somewhere over 1,000 protesters (and a very small number of security men) have been killed. The protests show few signs of abating, though their intensity seems to rise and fall from week to week. Pres. Bashar al-Asad has promised undefined “reforms” but has done little if anything to follow through on those promises– certainly, nowhere near enough to persuade his opponents of the seriousness of his offer. My assessment from a distance, actually, is that the regime doesn’t really know what to do to deal successfully with this brand-news kind of Arab Spring-inspired activism. But nor do the protesters yet seem to have any clearly defined political goals, or any clear idea of how to organize to realize them.  The country seems locked in a bloody impasse.

Back in the 1990s, I wrote quite a few columns in Al-Hayat in which I compared the minority-dominated systems of rule then existing in both Syria and Iraq with the system in apartheid South Africa.  Back then, Syria and Iraq both had (extremely competitive and mutually vindictive) Baath Party governments that professed strong adherence to the Baath (‘Renaissance’) version of secular Arab nationalism. But behind that political facade, both those governments and their ruling parties were in fact dominated by a tight clique coming from a minority religious group: In Iraq’s case, the Sunni Arabs, and in Syria’s the Alawites– members of a Shiite-related sect centered in the mountains near the Mediterranean coast northwest of Damascus.

Anyway, back then I was writing a bit about how the transition from a minority-dominated system to a fully functioning democracy had been effected through broad-ranging and very negotiations in South Africa, in the hope that people might start to plan a similar transition in the two Baathist countries. In Iraq, as we know, there was never a negotiated transition to democracy. Rather, there was an extremely violent U.S. military attack and occupation that brought in its train unbelievable amounts of further violence that, cresting in 2006-07, tore the country apart and sent millions of its people into exile.  Organizing a successful negotiated transition to democracy has to be a better path than that!  Better, too, that the terrible military impasse in which Libya’s people are now trapped… I well know from the time I spent not only working but also living in Lebanon during so many years of that country’s civil war in the 1970s that wars– and especially civil wars– are extremely inimical to the rights and wellbeing of civilians. (A fact that far too many liberal hawks, sitting in their comfy armchairs in extremely stable and secure western nations seem never to have even entertained.)

But how to start in organizing a successful negotiated transition to democracy? South Africa, in many ways, showed us the way during those years 1990-94. However, the record of South Africa also shows us how far Syria currently is from being able to achieve this on its own…

The story of the transition in South was not, as many in the west would have it, one of two “heroic” men, Nelson Mandela and Frederik W. De Klerk, sitting down together and somehow sorting it all out between them and then walking away with Nobel Peace Prizes. Rather, it was a story of the two movements/parties of which these men were disciplined members as well as leaders. (The actual overall leadership of the ANC at the time was located in Lusaka, Zambia; and it was only after getting the go-ahead from Oliver Tambo there that Mandela did anything serious in the negotiation at all.)  And a lot of the story transpired in the years before the negotiations in Pollsmoor prison started, as the leaders on both sides came to realize three things:

  1. That there was no solution to the problems they faced that could be imposed on the other by brute force;
  2. That the best way forward would be building on very simple and inclusive principles of human equality and a concept of equal co-citizenship of the one country they all loved, rather than division, secession, exclusion, or partition; and
  3. That they would need to pursue a path that was not dominated by vengeance and punitive score-keeping but rather by the need to allow everyone a “fresh start” going forward in the new order.

Of course, as soon as we list these factors that between them led to a successful negotiated transition to democracy in South Africa, we can see that most of them do not obtain in Syria. In a sense, the worst lacuna is the fact that in Syria you don’t have those two experienced and disciplined large movements facing off against each other. (Though to be honest, the South African situation wasn’t as clearcut as that, either. There, there was also the extremely large and lethal ‘third force’ of the regime-supported Inkatha Freedom Party. There were also many very active ‘extremists’ in both the Boer and the African-nationalist communities… All those forces had to be taken into consideration and dealt with politically as the transition proceeded. But the core negotiation– after several different formulas were tried– was the one that involved only the ANC and De Klerk’s National Party.)

Regarding the three ‘realizations’ listed above, I think the situation in Syria is probably a bit better– well, more certainly, regarding the first two of them. I think it should be clear to smart people in both leaderships that they don’t really have an option to quash the power of the ‘other’ side through brute force; and probably all of them are committed at some level (or could be persuaded to become so) to equal co-citizenship in a country that remains united. The non-vengeance thing is trickier. In particular, it is trickier nowadays because you have all these phalanxes of liberal hawks in the west, who are still fairly influential in the ‘international community’, who believe that strict score-keeping and ‘accountability’ mechanisms should be applied to leaders of color throughout the whole world (even if not to their own leaders.) In South Africa, an essential factor that allowed the success of the country’s big negotiation over democratization was that miscreants on all sides were offered amnesty in return for full truth-telling. Since 1994, however, the emergence of the International Criminal Court and the whole norm of international criminal prosecutions– which nearly always have been used as a weapon by the west against non-western nations– has established a situation in which the amazing, extremely inspiring transition that occurred in South Africa that year would not now be possible.

And we all saw how “well” the post-transition criminal prosecution thing went for the people of Iraq, right– with that politically very divisive travesty of a criminal proceeding against Saddam Hussein and the disgusting hanging that it ended in…

Ah well. At least Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court; so at least Syria has a chance of not getting caught in the kind of trap the Ugandan government and people found themselves in when the government desperately needed to negotiate an end to their crisis with the LRA, but the ICC rules wouldn’t allow them to do so for the longest time.

But still, the bottom line on the prospects for a negotiated transition to democracy in Syria is still that this is something that the political forces inside Syria look almost certainly incapable of undertaking on their own, in the way the South Africans were able to. The Syrians, in short, need some kind of outside body that is ready and willing to convene the needed “big” negotiation among the contesting sides– and not only to convene it, but also to shepherd it energetically to success and to mobilize (including, if necessary, from others) whatever financial or intellectual resources are needed to incentivize the Syrian participants to bring this negotiation to a successful conclusion.

Well, I guess that would be Turkey.

Turkey is uniquely positioned to play this role for a number of reasons:

  • That long common border– and the high incentive that gives Turkey to see that Syria doesn’t devolve into political chaos or sociopolitical breakdown (fitna);
  • Turkey has good relations with both the government and the embers of the opposition in Syria and is well-regarded by both; and
  • It has its own impressive record of a near-complete transition effected over the past 15 years, from being a military-dominated state to one in which the civilian leaders have effective control of the military and civil society has a significant and recognized role in society; and
  • Its impressive record in building a robust constitutional democracy in a majority Muslim state– one in which nearly all minorities feel secure and included and one that has provided the framework for extremely strong economic growth.

This is not an insignificant challenge for Turkey’s government (which will also be going into its own general elections on June 12!) In the discussion after today’s panel, I said I thought the country’s ruling AK Party– which has been accused of pursuing a “neo-Ottoman” policy of seeking active outreach to the countries of the former Ottoman Empire– really had no idea that this outreach would make such strong demands on Ankara’s political and diplomatic leaders, so soon!  I honestly think the AK leaders thought they could just extend their power and influence in Arab countries in the way they have done for many years now through the areas of the former Soviet Union– by the active extension and strengthening of economic ties.  But no. Now, both Libya and Syria are seeking Ankara’s help in negotiating something to do with resolving their present crises… though it is not yet clear in either case what exactly it is that is being sought– either from the government in power, or from the opposition movement(s)– or, indeed, from Ankara.

It looks as though what is planned for next week in Antalya is only a process to get the Syrian opposition organized.  I think that’s an excellent step. But on its own it is not nearly enough. The real negotiation that needs to occur is the one between the opposition and the regime that will establish the terms for the fully democratic system going forward.

Most people in the MSM commentatoriats in the west are still talking about a very different kind of “negotiation” for Syria: One that aims at achieving only a single outcome, the “exit” of Pres. Asad.  We discussed this a little at this morning’s session. I think it’s a wrongheaded approach for two reasons. One is that it relies far too much on this western notion of the one “bad actor”. Western commentators just love to personalize (and then demonize) their opponents. “Asad must go!” “Qadhafi must go!” … and so on. But what difference would it really make if Pres. Asad left Syria, but the rest of the Baathist regime remained in power?

The other reason that demanding the “exit” of the president as a precondition for everything else is that actually, it would probably be a lot better to have him in the negotiation tent and wielding his influence to persuade the many people who still follow him that it is both safe and honorable to proceed with this negotiation toward full democracy. If he is forced out, who will play that role?  If the ANC had insisted in South Africa that De Klerk “had to go” before they would engage in serious negotiations, how would they have ever have persuaded the majority of the Boers that the process would be a safe one for them? And for goodness sake, the sufferings that the apartheid regime had visited on the Blacks of South Africa for so long were considerably worse than what Syrian Baathists have inflicted on their opponents. It was not easy for the ANC leaders to persuade all their followers and allies that the negotiations with De Klerk and Co. were a good idea; but I am sure glad they did so.

(More on this, when I have time… )



1. Turkey and the transition in Syria | Souria Today - May 26, 2011

[…] Source: hcmideast […]

2. JohnH - May 26, 2011

Interesting that the Turkish government is sending signals that it is on the side of the Syria people. Such signals could complicate Turkey’s relationships with Assad. But maybe the Turkish government is sensing the demise of the Syrian regime and is starting to position itself as the broker for a deal.

3. Notes on Turkey and the Syrian transition | World News - May 27, 2011

[…] sorry we haven't been able to fix the comments here yet. Meantime, you can go over to this post on my backup blog to read what I just wrote about Turkey and Syria… and what's more, I think you […]

4. Notes on Turkey and Syria, #2 | A New Worlds in Birth - May 29, 2011

[…] I noted in this piece that I blogged on Tuesday, I do think South Africa’s experience of a negotiated transition […]

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