By M K Bhadrakumar
The Turkish leadership has chosen to be extremely assertive about developments in Syria in a calculated move to ride international concern. But Damascus has brusquely snubbed Ankara. The two sides match each other in assertiveness. For Turkey, pressing ahead means intervention in Syria. Backing off involves loss of face.
On the other hand, saving face requires that Syria backs off, which it is in no mood to do - least of all, after the Standard & Poor's downgrading of the United States' credit rating on Friday. History will have to judge whether Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was irrationally assertive following an iftar
(breaking of the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan) dinner last Friday in Istanbul.
He announced that he was deputing Foreign Minister Mehmet Davutoglu to proceed to Damascus on Tuesday. Erdogan then asserted:
We have been very patient until now, waiting to see whether we can fix this [Syrian situation], whether they [President Bashar al-Assad] will listen to what we have been saying. But our patience is running out now ... He [Davutoglu] will have the necessary talks and convey our messages in a decisive manner.Activists say at least 1,700 civilians have been killed and tens of thousands arrested since an uprising against the government began in mid-March.
The ensuing process will be shaped by the response we get [from Damascus] ... We don't have the latitude to remain a bystander to what happens in Syria. We are hearing voices coming from Syria and we definitely must respond by doing whatever we are required to.
Erdogan made a startling claim that what happens in Syria is an "internal affair" for Turkey and not a foreign policy issue, given the 850-kilometer border between the two countries and their deep cultural and historical links. This is the first time Erdogan has hinted Turkey might intervene in Syria. It wasn't one of those intemperate outbursts for which he is well-known. Erdogan intended it as a calculated affront to the Syrian regime and he had the Sunni Muslim Arab audience in mind.
The context becomes important. Damascus has succeeded in blunting Turkey's attempt to incite violence in Syria. The Syrian army took hundreds of casualties but Turkish interference has been thwarted. Turkish intelligence now faces the unenviable task of starting all over again. To Turkey's discomfiture, there has been no uprising in Damascus, or in Aleppo.
A setback in Syria embarrasses Turkey in front of Saudi Arabia and even tiny Qatar. Ankara's pretensions that "Turkey's model is rising" in the Arab world - to quote Umit Boyner, head of the Turkish Industry and Business Association, are getting nowhere in Syria.
On the contrary, as Boyner put it, "Although the change is defined as spring, a dead winter could come to the region as well." Turkey's efforts to persuade the international community to be proactive have not met with enthusiasm in European capitals, which suspect Ankara's territorial ambitions toward its former colony and in any case are distracted over Libya and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, time isn't on Turkey's side. Assad has announced reforms toward a multi-party system and plans to hold "free and fair elections" within the year. Unfortunately for Turkey, Syrian "refugees" have also begun returning home. The Turkish government admits that out of the 16,251 Syrians who crossed over as refugees, 8,836 have already gone back home and as of last Friday, only 7,415 Syrians were in the camps in Hatay province. They hardly provide reason for "humanitarian intervention".
Again, as a perceptive Turkish scholar Bahadir Dincer wrote in Hurriyet newspaper:
A stronger Turkish position [apropos Syria] seems to be blocked internationally ... As each day passes, the risks of taking action are increasing immensely. Now, our attempts to sympathize with the Syrian victims may be interpreted as a preference for a certain sect [Salafi]. This increases our possibility of being isolated from the international community on the Syrian issue ... [the] United States anticipated this while it remained uninvolved by saying, "There is nothing to do, we don't know what to do," which also puzzled Turkey.Davutoglu's visit to Damascus is carefully timed - just ahead of a report United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon will present to the Security Council on Syria on Thursday. Ban spoke to Assad on Saturday. He expressed "strong concern" at the "mounting violence and death toll" and urged Assad to "stop the use of military force against civilians immediately". Ban underscored that for Assad's reform program to "gain credibility, the use of force and mass arrests must stop immediately".
Erdogan is proceeding on the expectation that Western powers will succeed in getting the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution on Syria. He is positioning Turkey accordingly. Media reports have repeatedly suggested that Turkey is pressing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to back its intervention in Syria and that Ankara has drawn up operational plans, but Europe is unwilling to be drawn into a sectarian war and suspects Turkey's intentions toward Syria.
Damascus has estimated that Turkey is a trouble-maker. The day after Erdogan assertively announced Davutoglu's mission to Damascus, Assad's foreign policy adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said in a report flashed by the Syrian official news agency, SANA: "If ... Davutoglu is coming to Syria to deliver a decisive message, then he will hear even more decisive words in relation to Turkey's position."
She added in a thinly veiled reference to interference by Turkish intelligence, "Turkey still has not condemned the savage murders of civilians and military men by armed terrorist groups."
A demoralized army
Is Erdogan overreaching? His self-confidence today may be at an all-time high following his assertion of civilian supremacy over the pashas in the military, but Turkey's capacity to project power beyond its borders may have suffered. An uneasy calm prevails today after Erdogan's victory over the Turkish top brass (See Turkey says farewell to the generals, Asia Times Online, Aug 4, 2011).
He needs to consolidate his victory by ensuring that civilian supremacy becomes truly irreversible and to that end he needs to initiate far-reaching structural and legislative reforms.
First and foremost, the military needs to be brought down to the level of any other state organ and, specifically, it must be made subordinate to the defense minister. The military's budget needs to be brought within the ambit of civilian auditing. Again, it is only through an overhaul of the military academies that the "mindset" of the officer corps can be molded to imbibe democratic culture and to respect civilian supremacy.
What infinitely complicates matters is that this "mindset" of the military man - that he is the Praetorian Guard of the Turkish republic - also happens to be a cultural heritage bequeathed to him by founding father Kemal Ataturk.
These measures will take time and for now, the military will remain a problem area for the Erdogan government. The pro-government media are crowing that at the annual meeting of the Supreme Military Council last week, Erdogan sat alone at the head of the conference table in a marked departure from the previous practice of sitting beside the chief of the Turkish general staff. But things are not as simple as that.
According to a report by Hurriyet newspaper, the new appointed military chief, General Necdet Ozel (whom Erdogan promoted) has his hands full with a "demoralized army and possible operational shortcomings". Ozel needs to establish himself first by correcting any perception within the military ranks that he betrayed them and cozied up to an Islamist leader.
The establishment daily quoted a former army officer: "They [Turkish military] are no longer an orderly organization but just a crowd. The result of hesitations and uncertainty is inaction." The officer told Hurriyet that Erdogan's crackdown had had the effect of "crippling the military's operational capability as officers grew less confident in decision-making, anxious about ending up in prison, where scores of fellow officers, among them some 40 generals, are already incarcerated".
Everything boils down to a matter of leadership. Demoralized armies have been motivated by great leadership from the time of Alexander. Napoleon did it and Josef Stalin, too. Indeed, Ataturk himself did it in the Gallipoli campaign against very heavy odds.
Erdogan is a born fighter and will face a great temptation. He might weigh in the political advantages of involving the military in a real war in order to remold its moral fiber as the army of a nation of observant Sunni Muslims. Politicians are known to make obscure calculations.
Such enterprises are highly risky, but then Erdogan has a passion for risk-taking and he knows the Saudis and Qataris will be willing to finance his venture to defend "Sunni empowerment" in Syria. (Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah demanded an end to the bloodshed in Syria on Monday and recalled his ambassador to Damascus.)
All this makes Erdogan's outburst at the Iftar party on Friday and Davutoglu's mission to Damascus rather engrossing. The former professor will be facing his toughest challenge as a diplomat when he arrives in Damascus, as his pet dogma of "zero-problems" in Turkey's relations with its neighbors lies in complete ruins.
Two contradictory traits of the Turkish personality will be vying for supremacy on Tuesday - admiration for assertiveness and the famous trait of saving face.