Professor Kirişci: Public beginning to resent both sides in Syria
As the death toll has been rising rapidly in Syria, both sides are likely to wear each other out, a Turkish international relations professor has said, adding that the public in general has begun to resent both sides -- and Ankara has started to see that, too.

"The public in Syria and beyond Syria, including in Turkey, is becoming resentful of both sides," said Boğaziçi University's Kemal Kirişci for Monday Talk as he referred to a recent video appearing to show Syrian rebels executing soldiers who had surrendered.

"The images that the opposition coldly shoots captured soldiers -- that reminds me of the image of the execution in Vietnam in the middle of the street," said Kirişci. "That symbolic image changed the public perception of the war. It is symbolic that people at large are becoming disgusted by what's happening. Ankara has sensed that the Turkish public is beginning to see that regarding Syria."

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog, released new videos of pro-regime fighters apparently killing prisoners and cutting off ears from bodies. The UN human rights body said the video appeared to show a war crime and warned that "accountability will follow" for those who commit atrocities, while London, Paris and Washington raised concerns.

"If we want a new democratic Syria that respects human rights, we cannot be silent about any crime, no matter who the perpetrator," Rami Abdel Rahman, the observatory's director, told AFP.

More than 36,000 people have died since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's rule broke out in March 2011, first as a protest movement inspired by the Arab Spring and then as an armed rebellion after brutal repression by the regime.

Kirişci answered our questions on the issue of Syria and Turkish foreign policy.

*** There has been much debate about Turkey's foreign policy shift, in regards to whether there is a shift of axis or moving away from the Western world, especially until about two years ago. What is the curiosity about Turkish foreign policy nowadays when we are experiencing radical developments in the Arab world?

Curiosity or concern? This shift of axis issue came up visibly in the spring of 2010. It came up in the context of a UN Security Council vote on sanctions on Iran that Turkey together with Brazil objected to. Then came the Mavi Marmara incident. It had been preceded by the prime minister's reaction to Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Subsequently, there was a series of articles and columns, including one by Philip Gordon, who then became the assistant secretary for European affairs at the US State Department and whose article was titled "Who Lost Turkey?" The gist of the argument was that in the hands of the [Justice and Development Party] AKP government, Turkish foreign policy was being reoriented from its Western moorings toward the Middle East.

At the time, my colleagues working on the issue and I objected to it and argued that what was really happening was Turkey finally engaging the Middle East -- having somewhat neglected it for a very long time -- and one manifestation of that was visa policies. There were people pointing out Turkey's visa policies and using this as evidence of a shift of axis, whereas those of us who have been more familiar with Turkish visa policies were pointing out that Turkey had been following these liberal visa policies for the ex-Soviet world for about 15-20 years. With the Arab Spring, that discussion has subsided. The reason for that is not only the significance of the Arab Spring but that the position that Turkey took on the Arab Spring coincided with the Western and European Union position. Maybe it was even more Western than what the West is advocating, especially on Syria.

***We have a lot of observers referring to the situation now as the Arab Awakening or even the Arab Winter. Do you have a preference?

I personally prefer Arab Awakening or Arab Revolt. I can see why people make such differentiations. The Arab Spring has gained a lot of popularity, even though there is an increasing number of people saying that the Arab Spring has turned into a winter, particularly in the context of Syria and to a lesser extent Yemen and Egypt. But what gets overlooked in the analogy of winter is the economic situation. The economic situation in all of these Arab Spring countries is winterish. There are serious structural problems and unemployment, and these are related to the eruption of Arab revolt. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, we all tended to emphasize the political dimension of the Arab Spring, but the economic dimension played an even greater role. We must not forget that the Arab Spring erupted with a Tunisian street vendor setting himself alight, and this is a university graduate who is trying to survive peddling goods on the street. I'd like to link this to your very first question on the topic, if you allow me…

*** Please…

Since the shift-of-axis debate erupted, the world at large, particularly the West, has come to realize that one very important characteristic of Turkey's foreign policy towards the Middle East is economic engagement. This engagement had taken off prior to the Arab Spring, especially in the case of Syria, although I understand why some people have become terribly critical of the government's earlier engagement with the Assad regime. The government responded by saying they hoped that this engagement would have opened the way to incremental reform in Syria. I happen to agree to a certain extent; my concerns emanate from a different perspective. This particular economic engagement of the neighborhood -- in the form of trade, foreign direct investment (FDI) and greater movement of people -- looked very much like the European neighborhood policy. That was never implemented by the EU as far as the Mediterranean countries went.

*** It seems like the European neighborhood policy has sharp differences in treating neighbors.

One can quickly distinguish two policies: one toward the eastern partnership countries, and the other one concerning the Mediterranean, particularly Arab countries. There is a big difference in terms of the number of people allowed to enter the EU and also in terms of trade and foreign direct investment. I don't want to attribute this to a racial cause. Maybe another important factor that we sometimes fail to see is Germany. Because of its geographical location, it has a lot of interest in Eastern Europe together with Poland. They play a critical role in pushing the EU's eastern neighborhood policy, whereas the South, the countries in the EU which would have an interest in expanding relations with southern Mediterranean countries -- Greece, Italy, Spain -- are in deep economic difficulties and they don't want expansion.

*** Do you now expect changes in these policies?

The EU has quickly responded to the Arab Spring and did adopt policies aiming to bring about integration and support for economic and political transformation there but there is still this hesitancy and dynamic which prefers a "fortress Europe" and keep the EU inside high walls -- high walls against people, goods and services -- partly due to European domestic politics and partly due to the EU's economic crisis. What I advocate is this: Turkey, the EU and the US at a minimum should develop a dialogue among one another and with the Arab world. Turkey is well placed to do this. But there are big challenges in front of Turkey, not to mention the EU and the US.

*** What are these challenges?

There is a darker side as well. One very important factor is Syria. What happened in Syria is independent of Turkey. The world at large, people in Turkey too, supports Turkey's policies on Syria against the Assad regime. The emphasis put on ethics was admirable. However, this policy based on ethics is receiving growing criticism, even from circles close to the government on a number of grounds that the difficulties in Syria were not very well understood. Secondly, the policies that Turkey followed inadvertently began to undermine the very positive image that Turkey had built for itself in the whole neighborhood -- not only in the Arab world but in the whole neighborhood -- of being a country that is above regional conflict, able to rise above differences and take a relatively neutral position. Unfortunately, Turkey has lost that.

Turkey is now seen as part of sectarian polarization that is occurring in the Middle East and these have serious economic consequences. There are reports that Turkey is having problems with the Maliki government in Iraq, not to mention that Syria is lost for the time being economically. Economic relations with Iran have not been effective. Iran is heavily dependent on Turkey and looking at Turkey's moves. One challenge for Turkey is how to go back to the situation of two years ago and revitalize, recapture that spirit -- where Turkey is able to mediate between Syrians and Israelis, where Turkey is able to talk in a very constructive way to the Sunnis and Shiites. How we go back to it is a question that the people in government need to think about. They need to face this rather than distributing the blame on others.

*** The other challenge?

It's the Turkish-EU relations. I hate to say it, but I don't think it helps Turkey's regional role, constructive as far as the future of the Arab Spring goes, to tear up a progress report of the European Commission and throw it onto the floor in front of the public. And this public is not only the Turkish public but the international community, which realizes that parts of the report reflect realities in Turkey.

In surveys, especially the ones run by TESEV, we see that Arab politicians, including the new ones, want a Turkey close to the EU. And the third challenge is that what has made Turkey attractive to this neighborhood is a Turkey more pluralistic and democratic than it used to be back in the 1990s. Whether the government circles like it or not, the neighborhood, the international community and a growing section of the Turkish public recognize that there are problems and those are problems that you need to take by the horns. It makes my heart bleed to see Arab columnists taking the Mickey out of Turkey when it comes to democracy and freedom of expression issues.

There are challenges emanating from the Middle East, widely known challenges. Watching the Tahrir Square protests was exciting and a lot of people had empathy for the Arab world; a lot of people have been feeling that the Arab people have not been treated fairly by the West. That empathy is fizzling away and the Arab world is partly to blame for it, so the challenges of putting into place a workable political and economic system is the challenge for the Arab world and others.

*** And the case of Syria…

We in Turkey have to recognize that everybody contributed to the mess there -- Iran, Russia, the West, the United States, Turkey and the Syrians, including the opposition -- some unintentionally, some not. Now all these parties need to rise to the challenge. The Turkish government has been realizing this recently and revising its policies.

*** What is the government doing?

The government has been tightening the borders with Syria and recognizing that the instability in Syria has attracted and pulled into Syria really radical Islamic elements, a bit like the elements -- parts of al-Qaeda and Salafists -- who were active in Iraq and who thrived on violence. Turkey has contributed to it as much as the EU and the US have done.

*** How? By supporting the FSA?

By not intervening decisively at a decisive moment, by allowing the wound to fester and create a stalemate. I understand the reasons. As a person who studies international relations, I'm in principle against such interventions because these interventions often get out of control. Yet again, as a student of international relations, I do also recognize that there have been cases in the past in which such interventions have been positive; those interventions still left some unhappy, but many were happy. A good case in point is Kosovo; another is Libya -- maybe not as decisive as Kosovo in Kosovo's terms -- and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Imagine what the Balkans would look like without these interventions. But more often than not they create more problems -- Iraq and Afghanistan are good examples of that, also Somalia. When I say "decisive," I mean not necessarily an intervention like the one in Libya but maybe a policy that would have sent a much clearer message saying, "Assad, your days are numbered," and somehow bring Iran, Russia and China on board and tell the opposition that politics is about give and take, not about maximum objectives. Turkey's role would be very important here to tell the opposition to unite. Yes, the Turkish government did repeatedly tell the opposition to unite, but failed to bring that about. Now it is very difficult to do so, but Turkey should recognize that expecting Assad to disappear within six or eight months of August of last year, when relations were severed, was unrealistic.

***People of high stature -- Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi -- have been trying to find political solutions to the crisis in Syria but there seems to be no success. Is there really a way out?

This will drag on for a while and both sides will wear each other out. The public in Syria and beyond Syria, including in Turkey, is becoming resentful of both sides. The images that the opposition coldly shoots captured soldiers -- that reminds me of the image of the execution in Vietnam in the middle of the street. (South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed a Viet Cong officer with a single shot to the head.) That symbolic image changed the public perception of the war.

It is symbolic that people at large are becoming disgusted by what's happening. Ankara has sensed that the Turkish public is beginning to see that regarding Syria; there are no good and bad sides, they are all villains. The public at large is fast developing connections, solidarity with ordinary people in Syria, and ordinary people are sick and tired; they no longer see it as the good and great opposition versus the nasty regime. This process may miraculously create the circumstances of a way out. Will Assad disappear or become a refugee? Or will he face a Qaddafi-like end, like Saad Eddin Ibrahim said in your interview? It's difficult to predict.

I admired the stance that Ankara has taken regarding Syria, but as a student of international relations, I quickly saw how lines become blurred between brute realism and ethical policies; before you know it, your ethical policies are intermeshed with outcomes that undermine the very basis of what that ethical policy aims to achieve. I have a feeling that in and around government circles there is recognition of this.

'Turkish imports from Middle East significant'

*** Would you give us an idea about how bad the economic situation is in the Middle East neighborhood?

In the recent article "The Arab Spring and the Economic Winter" (by Paul Rivlin) you can actually see the statistical data laying down the extent of economic problems there. One manifestation of this is that while Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were doing well in terms of economic growth before the Arab Spring, now these economies have contracted. The Syrian economy collapsed. The Egyptian economy is growing but at a very small rate, incapable of responding to the problem of unemployment. All these countries also suffer from high degrees of youth unemployment. Furthermore, reports say that together with Greece these countries are rated "highly risky" for investments -- a big problem since those countries need investments to create jobs for the unemployed. And their foreign currency reserves are fast shrinking -- without foreign currency, it is difficult to buy goods to bring about economic growth. One last point is in regards to tourism. These countries, especially Tunisia and Egypt and even Syria, had important tourism sectors which have been adversely affected by what's going on.

*** And what would you say about Turkey's economic role in the area?

Curiously, trade with Egypt and exports to Tunisia continued to grow independently of problems resulting from the Arab Spring. There is also some Turkish foreign direct investment going into Egypt but also to a lesser extent into Tunisia. In Turkey, the export side has been emphasized -- for practical reasons because it means employment and growth; and talking about exports boosts Turkish national pride and feelings. But the important thing for me is Turkey's imports from the region. And what makes Turkey modestly unique compared to the EU -- of course what EU imports from Mediterranean and Arab countries is much bigger than what Turkey imports -- that unlike the EU, Turkey imports less energy and non-energy goods, processed agricultural goods and some industrial goods. There are studies linking this kind of economic activity to democratization because this kind of economic activity encourages a middle class to emerge. As we look at the Arab Spring today, we see that people who belong to the middle class have played a very central role initiating the Arab Spring and demanding transformation.

*** If Turkey had engaged with its Middle Eastern neighbors long before, do you think a democratization process would have started a long time ago?

I think yes. But Turkey reached the point where it could make a difference in the positive sense of the word only recently. Back in 1975, the place of foreign trade in Turkey's economy was something around 10 or 15 percent, today it's around 50 percent. So this is a development which made Turkey an emerging country like Brazil, India and Russia. However, that engagement could have brought about change in the long run, and not only Turkey, it could have been an effort also by the EU and the United States that these countries would have to open up their markets, similar to what they did with Turkey. Although there were so many critiques of the Customs Union, what brought Turkey where it is in the sense of making a difference, the Customs Union played a big role; we really need to appreciate it.

PROFILE

Kemal Kirişci

A professor at the department of political science and international relations at Boğaziçi University in İstanbul, Kemal Kirişci holds a Jean Monnet Chair in European Integration and was also the director of the Center for European Studies at the university between 2002 and 2008. He has previously taught at universities in Britain, Canada, Switzerland and the United States. His books include "Land of Diverse Migrations: Challenges of Emigration and Immigration in Turkey" (co-edited with A. İçduygu; İstanbul: Bilgi University Press, 2009) and "Turkey in World Politics: An Emerging Multi-Regional Power" (co-edited with B. Rubin; Lynne Reinner, Boulder, 2001). In June 2011, he received the first prize of the Sakıp Sabancı International Research Award. From January 2013, Kirişci will be taking up the TÜSİAD senior fellow position at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. CİHAN
Last Modified: 2012-11-04 20:00:01
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