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  • Writer's pictureŞafak Göktürk


Updated: Oct 10, 2023

As involved governments strive to influence Syria’s future and the international public keeps wondering what to expect next, the principal trajectory of events which brought mayhem to this country is largely overlooked.

Syria has been the cauldron of almost every dynamic unleashed following the Arab uprisings in 2011. The essential message of those peaceful upheavals was loud, simple and clear. Those brave masses had risen for dignity, freedom and better bread. They demanded to be recognized as citizens, not subjects.

Those uprisings could however unseat merely a handful of autocrats. Even that modest outcome is now difficult to discern as the process of change was reversed in Egypt, arguably the most pivotal country in the Arab fold, is still in shambles in Libya, has metamorphosed into a consuming regional conflict in Yemen and lost its glow in others, save Tunisia.

The deeper significance of that fateful year to understand today -and for that matter the future- lies elsewhere however. There was evidently no domino effect that would bring down stale and ruthless regimes across the region in quick succession, but that very specter was sufficient for the Arab rulers to feel the chill running down their spines. This changed their world for good. A roughly century-old status quo which primarily depended on a region-wide conviction that the leaders could rule at will was exposed. It is also worth noting here that bad blood between some of those leaders in the past was not a challenge to the status quo, but in factreinforced it, as such hostilities served the perpetuation of the individual regimes at home. This time around however, peoples’ power demonstrated that no one is untouchable.

The uniform response of all surviving or yet unencountered regimes was understandably a defensive one. Drawing also on the experience flowing from the ongoing uprisings, they took greater care in quelling any sign of unrest on their home turf, and, perhaps more importantly, repositioned themselves beyond their borders, as matters looked decidedly less assuring in the neighborhood. This repositioning progressively involved pushing their physical defensive lines farther from their own borders. In this swift process, Syria ceased to be regarded as a fellow country, and instead became the locus of the struggle to kill every conceivable dynamic for democratic change.

First, like in Egypt, the Syrian regime and the Islamists quickly became strange bedfellows in obliterating the message of the uprisings. Yet, the pedigree of the Syrian regime enticed Assad to opt for more violent tactics than those of his peer in Egypt. Within a matter of months, he managed to transform the scene from one of massive peaceful demonstrations into trench battles between the army and armed groups, which in the process degenerated into a motley of fundamentalists.

Such was the scene when regional and international players began charting active roles for themselves in Syria. Syria was indeed a highly suitable theatre for them. Syria is a microcosm -comparable to Iraq- of the region. This is by virtue of the confessional and ethnic make-up of its population and its location spanning quite different neighbors. These characteristics attract friends and foes alike. They are prone to manipulation as every outsider may find someone to act with or through once the regime’s territorial control is curtailed.

For Saudi Arabia and those Gulf countries which stepped in, the objective was three-pronged. They would deal with Syria’s frustrating leadership, trivialize the popular calls for freedom and assign a worthwhile occupation to their own Islamist radicals who would otherwise be tempted to turn on their dynasties at this time of great uncertainty.

Iran did not like the nature of the uprisings. They signified something different than its Islamic revolution. In fact, it was so perturbed that it impulsively -belying its standard unruffled composure- sent warships through the Suez Canal (a first after the 1979 Revolution) to have them anchored off the Syrian coast, and moved the two leaders of the Green Movement from house arrest to prison in the opening weeks of the 2011 uprisings. It was determined to protect its strategic jewel in the region and eventually thrust into the Syrian war in a big way.

Russia, equally -if not more- interested in maintaining and consolidating the holdings in the Levant it had only gradually retaken after the liquidation of the Soviet Union, made its decisive strategic move in 2015 when the Assad rule was nearing collapse.

As for the United States and the European Union, all they could project was haphazard and skittish responses until the IS (the so-called “Islamic State”) threat -itself partially the product of poor crisis management- emerged and the refugee crisis loomed so large and real. Only then they stepped in. Yet again, their reluctant interventionism was not guided by any coherent policy on the crisis in its entirety. This was a sad thing to observe. For unlike the powers hitherto mentioned, as democratic nations, they had the distinct capacity to see through the immediate challenges and grasp the underlying causes of this mayhem. The West concentrated on stemming the refugee flow towards its territories and on dealing militarily with the IS terror. The Syrian people’s want for freedom was not relevant for them. The US President should be given credit for being candid in voicing precisely thisapproach.

As for Turkey, the Syrian uprising and its descent into a regional conflict would have presented a serious dilemma even under a different government. A choice still had to be made at some early stage between continuing normal neighborly relations with Syria and rejecting the regime’s conduct of violence, hence taking a clear position toward the uprising.

The AKP (Justice and Development Party) Government’s considerations went beyond that however. From the onset of the Arab uprisings, but especially after the fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt grew, the Government, with its Islamist lineage, began to view the regionwide events in a different light. Instead of seeing them as the beginning of a historic turning point which, if brought to its conclusion, could gradually usher in representative and accountable governance across the geography to its South, the Turkish leadership decided to seize the opportunity for the creation of a likeminded north-south axis across the region. Thelikelihood of governing mandates for the Brotherhood movement should elections take place in the countries in flux (since no other political movement emerging through the uprisings initially had the grassroots organizational capacity as the Brotherhood did) underpinned the Government’s narrative for democratic change in the region. Morsi’s ascent to power in Egypt sealed the Government’s conviction on the direction of change.

Matters soon unraveled however. 2013 was the turning point. Morsi was removed from power by the military. In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood lost much of its domestic influence by the onset of the civil war and was reduced to an opposition in exile status, an outcome which undoubtedly pleased the Assad leadership.Having internalized the prospects for the Brotherhood when they looked promising, the AKP leadership now saw this reversal as an existential challenge also onto itself. The toughening of its rhetoric (alongside the “Rabia” hand gesturewhich became a standard symbol) from that point on has much to do with thisinward projection.

These shifts occurred as the battles in Syria raged, expanded and blurred its border with Iraq. Myriad jihadist groups unified under the banner of IS which began to control wide desert expanses in both Syria and Iraq. The refugee crisis deepened, with the number of displaced people rising to unprecedented levels. Turkey, together with Jordan and Lebanon, bore the brunt.

The constantly shifting battle lines exposed Turkey’s border area with Syria both toIS and separatist terror. In the years that followed, the area saw three military operations by Turkey to stem them.

The Republic of Turkey had traditionally shown no interest in becoming involved in military conflagrations in its immediate vicinity. Moreover, its response to these conflicts had always included a robust component of regional ownership. During the Iran-Iraq War, Turkey acted as mediator between the two countries and liaisedthe two through its Embassies in Tehran and Baghdad. After the first Gulf War, Turkey established the trilateral consultation mechanism together with Iran and Syria, which helped check and contain the fallout of that war from Iraq’s north.And in 2003, two months before the US attack on Iraq, Turkey pioneered the launching of the “Iraq’s Neighbors Initiative” in Istanbul. In the years that followed, all during the initial phase of the long AKP rule, this initiative effectively prevented the situation in Iraq from transforming into a regional conflict and even became the template for international cooperation to enhance Iraq’s stability, as the P-5, the UN, the EU, the Arab League and the OIC joined Iraq and its neighbors in this framework.

But during those turbulent years Turkey also never hesitated to concurrently fight terrorist threat springing from neighboring territories which had slipped outside state control.

Now, as the interim status quo has essentially been established along the border following Turkey’s agreement with the US and Russia, and the Syrian constitutional committee is preparing to discuss the future political structure of the country, it should be an appropriate moment to reflect on where those involved find themselves.

Let us begin with Syria. The country is in ruin and the regime is a spent force. Just in the way it prevailed in the civil war, it can only survive by Russia’s -and Iran’s- constant backing. To what extent the Syrian Government has been relieved by the departure of millions of its largely Sunni nationals from the country cannot yet be fathomed. But the Government also needs to be cautious about those who have stayed behind. The majority is not expected to be in a triumphant mood. Nevertheless, the Government will not be prepared to repatriate the refugees in any big numbers and any time soon.

Russia seems to be the primary winner. It does not simply influence Syria. In a way, it now owns the place. But that may prove to be too heavy a burden for its capacity, primarily in economic terms. Russia could make a decisive difference with its military tactics, hardware and technology, together with the Iranians and Hizbullah fighters on the ground. Military assets are of no great value in peacetimedomestic arrangements however. Still, its domineering presence in Syria will be highly significant. This advantage will serve Russia well as it expands influence in the region. In a peculiar way, Russia’s curtailed global reach with the end of the bi-polar era has served it well. With China countering the US politically and militarilyfrom the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, and economically as well as technologicallyon global scale, Russia could confidently focus on its “near-abroad” and the Middle East, exacting results mostly on its own terms. Russia benefits from the global card China has and it does not (except for its nuclear capability), and plays its somewhat weak hand skillfully at little cost.

Iran has consolidated its status in the region. The Syrian regime is still in place and more indebted to Iran than ever before. Together with its political and military holdings from Iraq to Lebanon to Yemen, its regional footprint now looks more complete. But its exposure has grown alongside these advances. Iran’s too conspicuous presence in the country may prove to be more of a liability than strategic advantage. Israel -and the United States- will see to that. Iran’s long history is replete with cases of overstretch which turned sour. Russia will have a delicate balancing role to play.

In the longer run though Iran’s sectarian appeal and reach in the region and Russia’s custodianship of regimes like the one in Syria may not be sufficient. Until now, working on the Sunni-Shiite divide served well in blunting the original thrustof the uprisings. Yet the underlying social and economic factors which led to those uprisings haven’t gone anywhere. In fact, the region may already be moving into a new phase where common resentment against corrupt and unaccountable governments will progressively override confessional and ethnic fault-lines.

Western European powers -or the EU for that matter- will find only limited roles for themselves under the post-Syria war terms dictated by others. They will have little influence in the reconciliation and are not expected to underwrite substantiallythe country’s rebuilding.

The United States had long limited its objectives in Syria to defeating IS and checking Iran’s presence especially in connection with Israel’s security. The disagreement which occasionally surfaced between President Trump and his teamor the state institutions was basically over the extent and duration of the ongoing missions in this framework. The scope of US involvement in the Syria crisis or generally in relation to the regional upheavals since 2011 fits into the broader pattern of its “Asian pivot”. There is neither an appetite for fuller involvement -militarily or otherwise- in the region particularly after the Iraq experiment, nor global geopolitics allow Washington to overemphasize Syria on its map.

In Turkey, the leadership had started with high expectations. Surfing on the regionwide tide which they thought would deliver their preferred kind of resultalso in Syria, they were convinced that Assad was destined to go and worked for that purpose. For them, change was taking place in the wider framework of the “closure of the century-long parenthesis”, meaning the ending of the regionalstatus quo that took shape following the First World War. They took it to heart because for them Turkey’s clear break with the Ottoman statehood also fell into the same parentheses. They consequently thought that their regional leadership in the dawning era was preordained, and the times when external imperial powers could dictate their terms on the region would soon be over.

Fast forward to 2019. Clearly, there was no bracket to open or close. Moreover,the AKP leadership’s regional ambitions regressed to Turkey’s own borderline, literally. The objective after almost nine-year brush with the Arab upheaval is hence reformulated. Now, it is to secure national borders against terrorist threat, a totally legitimate position for any nation, at any time.

A word about “Operation Peace Spring”. Turkey’s previous two cross-borderoperations were launched when the international coalition, which includes Turkey, was still waging its fight to defeat IS. This time around, as that objective has for the most part been achieved, the coalition partners felt less bound to take account of Turkey’s sensitivities and their reactions grew harsher. They thought that targeting YPG will undermine efforts to keep the remainder of IS under check or even result in its resurgence, a nightmare for Europe especially. Moreover, in the process, the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), whose bulk is constituted by the Kurdish YPG, became a highly regarded group in the West not only for its effective role in defeating IS on the ground, but also for its image as a modern, secular force, with fellow female fighters. This was viewed as a rare welcome news from a region now characterized by the doom and the gloom under dictators and jihadists.

The undeniable organic ties between the terrorist PKK and the YPG gave legitimate cause to Turkey to act upon. However, the context in which this threat was to be dealt with probably required more than operational preparation. Unlike the conditions in Turkey or in Iraq’s north where the PKK maintains its presence largely in isolation from the population it claims it fights for, in Syria the YPG is de facto responsible for the security and order in the towns and settlements under its control. Whether the populace there -Kurds or others- are comfortable with this is another matter. But, at least, many see YPG as a fellow Kurdish element. And,for an area which has previously lived under the repressive control of the regimeonly to be replaced for several years by IS terror, the YPG control came as arelative respite. So, the military operation against the PKK/YPG presence, with the “Syrian National Army” assuming the pitched battles, was viewed by manyinhabitants and the outside public in a different light. Image projection and hencepublic diplomacy remain essential components of any major undertaking.

Now that Turkey has established a safe buffer along its border through its operation and agreements with the US and Russia, and the Syrian Government is in the process of reclaiming control of its northern territories, questions are being raised if a similar outcome could not be exacted by more varied means prioritizing diplomacy, including direct contact with the Syrian Government. And, there is no merit in still arguing if the Turkey-US and the Turkey-Russia border area agreements are a success or something less than that. For the arrangements stipulated therein are provisional in nature. Provisional because they are not binding for the Syrian Government. Sooner or later Turkey and Syria will have to get down to business to ensure the security of their common border.

Finally, a word on oil, which helped shape the region’s geopolitics for more than a century. Syria is not in the forefront of the regionwide oil/gas supply. The oilfields in Syria’s east are only relatively significant in the region’s crude oil production. Also, Syria’s natural gas output could only meet the domestic demand, and the country was a net importer of gas until 2011. Syria is more significant for its strategic location in relation with regional integration in the energy sector as well as prospective transit pipelines. However, unlike what the preachers of conspiracy theories are enamored to believe, the war in Syria did not erupt because of oil. Furthermore, the regional players and major powers have been and are still so preoccupied with the multiple challenges to their security in and from the region that stories about these powers charting, by their current conduct, future energy supply corridors benefitting one or another group sounds like a pipe dream now. The US President’s recent remarks to the effect that the Syrian oilfields should remain under Kurdish militia control with US backing are hardly a declaration betraying a bigger scheme to keep regionwide fossil resources under friendly control. It is instead more an assertion of continued US presence in Syria for the upcoming bargain that will shape the country’s new status quo. The US has little else left to claim on the ground.

The Syrian crisis is in the gradual process of receding to its national proportions. This, in itself, should be welcome. This re-nationalization of sorts will make the crisis more manageable. But it will also allow us all to look at the region without the prism of the Syria events. 2011 marked the beginning of a lengthy yet irreversible process of change across the Arab world towards representative, accountable governance and democratization. Transformation in Tunisia, where the old establishment and the ideological monopolists of another sort were shown their limits in distorting the democratic agenda, should not be expected to remain as an exception. Urban Arabs elsewhere, with bigger numbers, are poised to do the same. Sheer force can do as much as we have already witnessed. Winning againstand not winning their own people also shows the rulers’ utmost limits of power.Future rounds will be different. This is not wishful thinking. The Arab street is again on the move, as the swelling crowds from Baghdad to Beirut and from Cairo to Algiers demonstrate. Not surprisingly, until now we have seen the “state security” pitted against peoples’ call for accountability and freedom. The process will have reached its successful conclusion when state security and citizenship entitlement become synonymous.

This dynamic process will influence the geopolitics of this vital region in the years to come. The forces of democracy will do well if they acknowledge this process for what it is. The Turkish society, against all odds, will remain part and parcel of these forces.

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