Obama: Realistic or Rudderless on Syria?

By Christopher Phillips, Published in Middle East Eye, 16 August 2014

US airstrikes strikes against Islamic State in Iraq this month have inevitably revived the long-running debate over Obama’s Syria policy.

Hawkish commentators leapt on an interview by Hillary Clinton where she appeared to blame IS’s rise on the president’s refusal to arm Syria’s secular rebels in 2012, saying it, “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

Supporters of Obama responded, as did the president in his own interview, by dismissing such views as “fantasy”.

Aside from the usual political point scoring, these two reactions reflect a wider contest already waging among Washington commentators to define Obama’s foreign policy legacy, and his Syria stance is key. One sees the president’s approach as realistic, the other as rudderless.

The rudderless camp boasts not only the usual neo-cons, but also many who have served the administration, including the former ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford and former special advisor for transition in Syria, Fred Hof.

Hof attacked Obama’s recent interview saying his Syria policy showed, “no evidence of an existing plan or overall strategy.”

Lack of leadership is a common criticism, portraying the president as reactive, without clear goals other than a general aversion to military action. Many add that the primary concern is how actions play in the domestic news cycle.

Obama is painted as aloof and high-minded, seeking advice only from those who reinforce his opinions and dismissing experienced views from the State Department and elsewhere. A small inner circle of close advisors, notably Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice and Denis McDonough, instead determines policy.

To critics, Obama’s approach to Syria is a catalogue of reactive errors. By mid-2011, Obama was convinced, as were most advisors and the state department, that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would be swept away by the Arab Spring, and so publically called on him to step down.

However, this was not followed up by a clear plan of how Assad’s fall would be achieved, beyond ineffective economic sanctions, condemning rhetoric and diplomatic support for the opposition.

Then-CIA director David Petraeus, supported by Clinton and others, drew up a plan to arm and train the mostly secular rebel militias, but Obama refused. Instead, other actors – notably Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and a host of private donors from the Gulf – armed the rebels, often encouraging Islamist leaning fighters. This weakened the secularists, diminished US influence over the rebels, and created the vacuum that Clinton claims IS filled. 

Obama then exacerbated matters by backing away from a proposed airstrike of Syria in August 2013 after Assad had crossed Obama’s self-declared “red line” of using chemical weapons. By accepting a Russian plan that removed Assad’s WMD peacefully, Obama showed a caution that emboldened Assad and further convinced the armed rebels that Washington was not coming to help, accelerating the attraction of radicals like IS.

However, Obama’s supporters who view his policies as realistic refute this view.  While they accept that the White House made errors, notably the assumption that Assad would fall quickly, since then it has responded intelligently. The rebels – who Obama himself characterises as, “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” – would never have defeated a well-armed state backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Any major armaments plan would likely have sucked the US further into an unwinnable conflict and various academic studies have shown that the Syrian conflict

Syria resembles the kind of classic civil war that research suggests external intervention only prolongs, rather than resolves.

Recognising that the US has never held much sway in Syria, unlike Egypt and Iraq, Obama has instead sought to contain the conflict’s fallout. If read in this way, his policies have been relatively successful.

As Steven Simon, Obama’s former National Security Council senior director for the Middle East, wrote: “US strategy is working well enough, to the extent that it entails staying out of asymmetric engagements in a civil war in a country where American interests are limited.”

Obama has acted when he deems US interests are threatened, and when he believes he can actually achieve a positive result. The rebels have received enough support to survive, including a recent proposed extra $500 mn in training and equipment, but not enough to drag the US in further.

From this perspective, the chemical weapons red line policy actually worked. Obama, who has historically opposed WMD proliferation, succeeded in using the threat of force to remove chemical weapons from the conflict.

Supporters also dismiss notions that Obama didn’t widely consult experts. The problem, insiders argue, is that those calling for more intervention in Syria never presented the president with a satisfactory plan. There was too much ambiguity over the potential radicalisation of armed rebels, the response of Iran and Russia, and mission creep. There was a full and open discussion, which the experts calling for more intervention in Syria lost. Many of these defeated experts now lead the rudderless camp.

At the heart of the debate are two contrasting worldviews. The ‘realistic’ camp is conscious of the limits on US Middle East policy, still reeling from George W. Bush’s failed attempts to remake the region at huge costs in blood and treasure. This has prompted a narrow reading of US priorities and interests, and Syria does not qualify. They would reject the pejorative ‘declinist’ label, but broadly agree with the idea of an increasingly unstable and dangerous multi-polar world and favour offshore balancing over direct intervention. They may question whether any single ‘grand strategy’ is even possible.

In contrast, the ‘rudderless’ camp draws from a US national security establishment that, according to Michael Glennon is, “still committed to trying to run the world”. While they also reject the grand ambitions of Bush, their view of US national interests is much wider. Intervention in Syria is a way of landing a blow to Iran, supporting long-term regional allies and, more recently, defeating the regional jihadist ambitions of IS.

The strikes on IS in Iraq can therefore be read in these two different ways, pointing to different conclusions as to Obama’s future Syria policy. To the rudderless camp, Obama has finally realised the danger of IS. Having blundered in underestimating them in June, he now sees the physical and ideological threat they pose. A strike on their positions in Syria will surely soon follow.

From the realistic camp, no such Syria attack will come. Obama hit IS with very specific and narrow goals, stated as protecting the Yezidis, US personnel already on the ground and Kurdish allies in Erbil. Moreover, it was at the invitation of the Kurdish and Iraqi governments. This fits in with the idea of acting only when US interests are genuinely threatened and when a limited set of goals can realistically be achieved.

No such parallel exists for attacking IS’s positions in Syria: there are no US personnel on the ground and no invitation from the loathed Assad government. Any such strike would require a redefinition of US interests around the wider threat of IS that Obama’s opponents are clamoring for.

However, unless IS suddenly steps up its anti-US activity from Syria, such an attack would not fit the realistic approach his supporters insist he has followed all along. Indeed, it truly would fit the description of a rudderless president.

 

Understanding Syria’s four-front war

By Christopher Phillips

Middle East Eye, 5 August 2014

Syria’s civil conflict has evolved into a four-front war involving a fight between Islamic State and Damascus, between IS and mainstream rebels, another between the rebels and Assad – and finally one between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militias

As the world media has been preoccupied with the Gaza conflict, Syria has just had the bloodiest week of its civil war. Some 1,700 were killed in seven days, with a renewed push from Islamic State (IS) accounting for much of the violence.

Confident after its victories in Iraq and deploying newly looted military hardware, IS’s sudden charge and the reaction to it in Syria and outside, has tilted the conflict on its axis, challenging various assumptions and shifting dynamics. Increasingly, we can talk about a war being fought on four overlapping fronts by four groupings of actors: the Assad government, IS, the mainstream rebels and the Kurds.

The first front is between IS and President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Assad facilitated IS’ rise by cynically releasing jihadists from prison to radicalize the opposition and then deliberately avoiding military confrontation. Its growth has helped him. IS alarmed the West, prompting some to suggest a rapprochement with Damascus is the least bad option; it terrified his own population, reinforcing the government’s message that it was their only defense; and it physically attacked his enemies in the mainstream rebels while avoiding his own troops. Any implicit alliance was shattered this month, however, when IS stormed three separate government targets in Homs, Raqqa and Hassakeh, killing hundreds of government troops, then gruesomely videoing their heads on spikes afterwards.

Such heavy losses have rocked Assad’s domestic supporters, provoking rare outrage and criticism on social media. Most accept the government’s characterization of all the opposition as sectarian jihadists and many, especially Alawis, have sent thousands to die to defeat them.

IS seem the most brutal of all, especially to another core constituent, Syria’s Christians who have been aghast at the recent expulsion of their coreligionists from Mosul. Yet these defeats challenge the government’s ability to actually defend its supporters. Assad’s forces are actually weaker as a result of the IS attack in Iraq, as many of the Iraqi Shiite militia who had fought for him returned to defend their homes. However, he cannot afford to isolate his base, and a more concerted campaign against IS can be expected, stretching his resources thinner. This was seen already when one lost area, the Shaar gas field in Homs, was retaken.

Assad misread Syria’s second front, the war between IS and the mainstream rebels. He assumed that IS would finish off the weakened rebels before turning on him. True, IS has recently conquered many rebel territories, pushing Jubhat al-Nusra out of Deir es-Zur and making inroads into the Aleppo countryside, but it is no longer playing Assad’s game. As it expands and occupies more land, it requires further troops and an acquiescent local population. While it still seeks military victories over rival rebel groups, it also wants to woo their fighters. Similarly, according to the Delma Institute’s Hassan Hassan, it is making more effort to win hearts and minds in the regions it conquers. Turning its guns on Assad achieves both goals: countering any former accusations that it was the government’s ally and presenting itself as the best route to its overthrow.

On the other side, the mainstream rebels seem as divided as ever. While they temporarily united to push IS out of the north in January, the various militia and fiefdoms continue to compete for territory and resources. The Washington Post noted how the US’ closest ally, Harakat Hazm clashed with Ahrar as-Sham over control of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing last week. Despite Western attempts to paint these rebels as “moderate” the reality is that most are, more accurately “non-IS Islamists”, with Jubhat al-Nusra an al-Qaeda affiliate. Given how fluid allegiance to rebel militia has been, there is a real chance that idealistic young fighters impressed by IS’ momentum could peel away.

This is increasingly likely as the rebels face defeat in Syria’s third front, the war between themselves and Assad. By ignoring IS, Assad has focused on recapturing Aleppo. He has replicated the brutal tactics used to recapture Homs in March: depopulating hostile districts with barrel bombs before moving on the rebel fighters remaining.

Retaking Syria’s second city would allow Assad to declare the war won, even if much of rural Syria remains out of his control, and would certainly cripple the rebels. This decline and IS’ surge has prompted urgency in Washington, and the familiar calls to “arm the rebels” are heard again, with some proposing the rebels could be trained to simultaneously resist Assad and IS.

This is fanciful. IS defeated Iraq’s national army within days and there is no reason to suggest an uncoordinated collection of feuding militia could rapidly overcome three years of disunity to do better. Even if they could unite, the resources proposed are too few. President Obama has authorized $500m to train and arm rebels, but this won’t appear until 2015 and the covert weaponry delivered so far is restricted to eight small carefully vetted groups, having limited impact.

Moreover, after the MH17 disaster in Ukraine, there is even less appetite from the White House to deliver the anti-aircraft MANPADS that hawks demand. More positively, after three years of backing rival rebel groups, the IS crises seems to have sobered Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and stronger coordination may follow. These efforts may prove enough to keep the mainstream rebels in the field, probably around Deraa and Idleb, and may even prevent too many fighters switching to IS. However, it is unlikely they can form a realistic rival to IS and the increased support will probably come too late to prevent Assad’s march on Aleppo.

Changes have also come on Syria’s fourth and least reported front: the battle between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militia. The Kurdish militias, led by the PYD – the PKK’s Syrian wing – have used the Syrian civil war to carve out autonomous regions, clashing with IS in the process. July saw intense fighting over the PYD-controlled border town of Ain al-Arab / Kobani, prompting a radical new position from Turkey.

Fearful of Kurdish nationalism, Turkey had previously opposed the PYD closing its border to prevent any support from the PKK. In contrast it allegedly turned a blind eye to those supporting IS. However, the IS attacks into Iraq prompted a U-turn. With Ankara now realizing the size of the IS threat and fearful that Ain al-Arab would give it a launch pad into Turkey, the border was opened prompting a stream of 1000 PKK fighters into Syria to help the PYD hold off the advance. While Kurdish-IS clashes will likely continue, the emergence of a united PYD-PKK military force is a new dynamic. Ironically it may provide Turkey with a much-needed IS buffer, but it also increases the likelihood of an autonomous Kurdish Syrian region becoming a reality.

Despite these changing dynamics, none of the four groupings looks likely to win outright. Assad might take Aleppo, but he will face increased public pressure to take on IS, stretching his limited military resources. The mainstream rebels may be facing imminent defeat, but they probably have enough external support to remain in the field.

Syria’s Kurds now have PKK support, but that remains subject to Turkish border policy. Even IS, seemingly in the ascendency, must manage the shift from invader to occupier, and win over enough fighters and civilians to continue its march west. IS’ recent charge may have shifted, dissolved or solidified the Syrian civil war’s fronts and actors, but it seems more likely to perpetuate the conflict further rather than hurry its end.

Syrian Regime Strikes ISIS

A few of my thoughts for Syria Deeply 26 June 2014

Syrian regime fighter jets launched aerial attacks yesterday on key positions held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, and Qaim, across the Iraqi border. The strikes are part of the Syrian government’s intensified campaign against ISIS, which has been using the spoils from its takeover of Mosul earlier this month to propel its expansion in Syria.

The attack surprised those who assumed that Assad, who has until now been fairly passive in fighting ISIS in the east, would focus on the war’s other fronts while letting armed groups fight among – and ultimately weaken – themselves. But as reports emerged that ISIS has been gaining recruits from Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups, concern spread in Damascus that its power could grow faster than expected – possibly requiring intervention.

Syria Deeply: Why did the regime choose to strike now?

Chris Phillips: There has been a lot of press coverage of the regime’s role in ISIS coming [to power]. It had a desire for radicalism to emerge – in order to discredit the opposition – but it doesn’t actually want ISIS to thrive. It doesn’t mean they want them to succeed in taking very large swaths of Syria and Iraq – and I suspect they’ve been genuinely shocked by the capacity ISIS has shown in the last few weeks. While they were content with ISIS controlling parts of eastern Syria, they now see a force that could control parts of Iraq as well – so the regime could be genuinely concerned about ISIS’s momentum and trying to check it.

There’s also the matter of its ally, Iran, which has contributed a large amount to the regime’s war effort and is now sending its own troops to take on ISIS in Iraq. So for it to request [aerial] help from the Syrian government is not out of the question.

Syria Deeply: The regime’s military resources are stretched. Does it have the manpower to fully tackle ISIS?

Phillips: The regime’s position hasn’t changed. It doesn’t have the capacity to reconquer all of Syria. What it seems to want to do is keep the opposition factions, including ISIS, [contained] and fighting each other.

The regime is also attacking ISIS symbolically. The regime’s long-term plan, remember, is to risk short-term international isolation, then wait for the international climate to shift and walk back in. It might see ISIS as that opportunity. If it can present itself as the force in the region that the West can count on to take on ISIS, then its period of international isolation would end.

 

The Golan Heights: ripples of civil war in Israel’s little piece of Syria

By Christopher Phillips

Published in The World Today, June 2014

The Golan Heights is home to thousands of Druze who cling on tenaciously while looking over their shoulder at the chaos in their homeland.

The first thing that strikes visitors to the Golan is its natural beauty. The second is how empty it is. From different vantage points on the Heights you can see the densely packed villages of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel. But the fertile Golan – an area the size of Berkshire – has barely 40,000 residents.

Until the 1967 Six-Day War, the Golan was home to 145,000 Syrians. It took Israel barely 30 hours of fighting to push the Syrian military out, swiftly punishing the Ba’ath regime for their shelling of Israeli villages from the plateau. The official Israeli line is that the all the Syrian civilians fled with their army.

Fawzi, a Golan resident who was 13 when Syria lost the territory, scoffs. ‘How could 145,000 people flee in 30 hours?’

Recent research by Shay Fogelman, a Haaretz journalist, supports his scepticism. Through declassified documents and witness accounts, Fogelman suggests that while many did flee, more than half remained only to be systematically driven off by the Israeli military. Three months later, most of the Golan’s villages had been bulldozed, and only 6,011 Syrians remained.

Today, Israel’s Tourism Ministry advertises the region as ‘one of the most beautiful and most visited parts of the country’. Israeli tourists enjoying the empty landscape contrast sharply with the 400,000 descendents of the Golan refugees living in cramped Damascene appartments. Many are now ‘twice refugees’ living in Jordanian camps after fleeing the Syrian civil war.

While Damascus used Israel’s occupation of the Golan as justification for decades of oppression at home, little was done to reclaim it, with the Syrian front being Israel’s quietest border. Israel has in the past considered returning the territory in exchange for peace with Syria, but the negotiations in 1999-2000 and 2007-8 broke down in recrimination. The eruption of civil war in Syria in 2011 by rebels challenging the 40-year-old Assad dictatorship has all but ended any prospect of diplomacy.

The Syrians who remained in 1967 and their descendents now number 20,000, living in five villages in the far north of the Golan. Almost all are Druze, a schismatic sect of Shia Islam based mostly in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, whose multicoloured flag is seen affixed to many Golan homes. Their religion partly explains their survival on their land in 1967. Some residents suggests that the Druze’s bitter history of leading a revolt against French rule in Syria in 1925 made them more aware than other Golan residents of the perils of flight, and hence community leaders in 1967 ordered villagers to stay put. But others suggest a more cynical explanation which is supported by Fogelman’s research.

According to Fogelman, the Israeli army – knowing that the Druze in Mandate Palestine had proved willing to accept Jewish rule after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 – left the Syrian Druze in place in 1967, hoping that they would do the same. This proved a miscalculation.

In 1981 Israeli law was formally extended over the Heights, an illegal annexation in all but name that has never been internationally recognized, and the Golan Druze were invited to take citizenship. Less than 10 per cent accepted the offer, and they were ostracized as the region erupted in a two-year campaign of strikes and protests. Many, Fawzi included, spent time in Israeli prisons, ‘for being nationalists’.

In Majdal Shams, the largest of the villages, the anniversary of the 1981 annexation is commemorated annually by thousands of marchers waving the flags of Syria’s Ba’athist government.

‘We know that we are a de facto part of Israel, and that we won’t go back to Syria any time soon,’ says Dr Taisseer Maray, director of the Golan for Development centre which provides health, education and agricultural support. ‘But we have to defend our culture which Israel is attacking. They want to make us “Druze Israelis”, but we’re not. We’re Syrian.’

According to its director, the centre provides a ‘parallel structure’ to enable Syrians to cope with ‘long-term occupation’ so that they don’t depend on Israeli services.

Outside the centre, views are not so black and white. Nearly 50 years of occupation has brought a degree of pragmatic co-existence between Syrian and Israeli. Residents of the Golan enjoy full citizenship rights, though their nationality is officially ‘undefined’, and many work and study ‘down there’, as the locals call it.

Wael, a 30-year-old postgraduate, lived in Haifa for ten years. ‘I have many Israeli friends,’ he says, ‘but, of course, we don’t talk politics.’ For some younger villagers like Wael and the many others smoking shisha and drinking in Majdal Shams’s many cafes, the rhetoric of Syrian nationalism is a bit stale.

‘I don’t even know what Syria is,’ says Wael, ‘The occupation began long before I was born.’ For Najat, manager of the village’s largest hotel that caters for Israeli skiers, ‘Our primary worry is not politics, it’s that there was no snow this year.’

Yet even among the village’s pragmatists, variations of Arab, Syrian and Druze identities run strong. There is strong solidarity with the Palestinians and condemnation of Israel’s policies in the West Bank. Similarly, both Najat and Wael complain of ‘anti-Arab racism’ in Israel. Moreover, there are now 20,000 Jewish settlers on the Golan. While the settler movement here is far smaller than their more ardent West Bank equivalent, the new arrivals, proudly living under the blue Star of David flag, now represent half of the Golan’s population. ‘They’re trying to box us in,’ remarks Fawzi, complaining that the tiny Jewish settlement of Nimrod was placed amid Druze villages to prevent the latter’s expansion.

It is the situation in Syria, not Israel, which attracts most concern. Machinegun fire and shelling from the civil war can be heard daily in Majdal Shams. While in Syria itself most Druze have sided with Assad, fearful of the sectarianism espoused by Sunni radicals among the rebels, in the Golan opinions seem evenly split.

During the civil war’s early years, there were fights between supporters of President Bashar Al-Assad and the opposition in the village’s main square. As throughout Syria, families and communities are torn by competing loyalties. ‘I like Bashar,’ smiles Najat, ‘but my husband’s with the opposition. So we try not to talk about it.’

Some insist that informants for Assad operate within the village, prompting displays of loyalty out of fear of what might happen to their families in Syria. Others are genuinely supportive of Assad, believing the alternative would mean sectarian fanaticism in Damascus. ‘I worry what would happen to us if Bashar fell and then the Golan returned to Syria,’ ponders Wael, ‘Sunni radicals don’t like the Druze. That said, Bashar is trying to be a king in a republic, and that’s just wrong.’

Fawzi, Dr Maray and those working at the centre tend to support the opposition. ‘The Assad regime is the worst in history,’ declares Fawzi, who displays the threestarred flag of the Syrian opposition on his desk. ‘Sadly, the majority in Majdal Shams supports Bashar. They are scared of anti- Druze fanatics.’

The war is getting closer, with Israel reporting that both the rebels and Assad’s Lebanese allies Hezbollah have crossed into the Golan during 2014. In March, three Israeli soldiers were injured in a blast, prompting a retaliatory air strike.

Yet, as ever, the last Syrians on the Golan have no choice but to wait and see what fate the powers around them will deliver. That said, after 50 years there remains a determination to keep their culture, independence and spirit alive – whichever flag they live under. 

Erdogan’s War

By Christopher Phillips

Published in Middle East Eye, 4th June 2014

The days when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was hailed as a democratic reformer at home and a diplomatic visionary abroad seem a distant memory. The violent suppression of protestors commemorating the Gezi Park protests this month, and his alleged punching of a critic after the Soma mining disaster are the latest in a long line of repressive actions fuelling a growing opposition movement.That said, the Turkish prime minister retains substantial support that delivered him victory in March’s municipal elections with 43% of the vote, boosting his chances of being elected president in August.

In foreign policy, however, there are no silver linings. Erdogan’s hopes of joining the EU have broken down; his close ties to US president Barack Obama are strained over the crackdowns; while his steadfast support for the Muslim Brotherhood has rocked relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Yet one area stands out as Erdogan’s greatest foreign policy headache: the ongoing civil war in neighbouring Syria.

While Syria’s three year war is often characterised as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, Iran, the US and Russia, it is Turkey that has played one of the most central roles. After calling for president Bashar al-Assad to stand down in 2011, Ankara allowed the rebel Free Syria Army to be based in its territory. This facilitated military success against Assad in northern Syria in 2012-13.

With Ankara’s acquiescence, rebels captured most of the crossings along Syria’s 910km border with Turkey. This, along with Turkey’s much vaunted “open door” policy to Syrian refugees allowed fighters, funds and weapons to steadily flow south. While Turkey denies providing weapons directly, eye witness accounts and journalistic investigations dispute this and, at the minimum, a blind eye has deliberately been turned to arming by allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the CIA. Either way, Turkey became the vital staging ground for the rebels’ war with Assad.

Yet this approach has failed. Ankara modelled its strategy on the fall of Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 and expected a US-led international intervention once a rebel foothold was secured. But no intervention came, with the last hope seemingly extinguished when Obama called off a proposed strike in September 2013 after a regime chemical weapon attack.

Assad, with considerable support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, has meanwhile halted the rebels’ charge south and the opposition has fractured into various Islamist, jihadist and al-Qaeda affiliated militia – some more concerned with fighting one another or carving out local fiefdoms than fighting Damascus. Indeed, external backers including Turkey have contributed to these divisions by supporting divergent groups based on ideological affinity and short term military goals.

Assad remains in power and is likely to stay for some time. Though he may never reconquer northern Syria, the region looks set to become a security threat on Turkey’s doorstep, a safe haven for Jihadist and Kurdish separatist militia. Turkish media claimed that one such group, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL), were behind the Reyhanli bombing that killed 51 Turks in May 2013. Add to this the 800,000 refugees now sheltering in Turkey, and the internal sectarian tensions Ankara’s involvement in Syria has caused, it seems that 3 years after Erdogan cut his ties with the Ba’ath regime, his goals remain unfulfilled and his country is worse off.

So how culpable is the prime minister? Erdogan was already the leading force in determining Turkish foreign policy, alongside Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, but he took a particular interest in the Syria crisis, being personally outraged when his former ally Assad refused to halt the violence as he’d promised in 2011. Erdogan subsequently lobbied Obama in person to intervene militarily, reportedly enraged when the 2013 military strike was cancelled.

There is little public support for his stance, with only 33% backing it in 2012, and, given the top-down nature of the premier’s leadership style, Turkish involvement in Syria might be seen as ‘Erdogan’s war’. Indeed, one must ask whether a different premier would have taken such an uncompromising and combative approach.

Moreover, it is an approach characterised by successive miscalculations. Erdogan firstly overestimated his influence over Assad, falsely believing he could persuade his ally to reform, then he under-estimated the durability of Assad’s regime, thinking it would crash as quickly as other dictatorships in Egypt or Tunisia. He then over-estimated the willingness of the US to intervene militarily as it had in Libya, and finally over-estimated the opposition’s unity, not realising the ideological and personal fissures that would split the already disorganize rebels.

In fairness, Erdogan was joined in his miscalculations by many leaders who opposed Assad. However, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the West don’t share Syria’s longest border and risk the level of blowback that could befall Turkey.

In spite of failure so far, there seem few signs of any shift in Turkish policy. Turkey’s involvement could even escalate. A recent leaked tape showed head of National Intelligence (MIT) and Erdogan ally Hakan Fidan proposing a Turkish invasion of Syria under a false pretext, though it also suggested caution from the military.

Similarly, when rebels led by al-Qaeda affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra captured the Syrian village of Kassab in March, Turkish commentators noted that, given the proximity to Turkey, the operation must have had Ankara’s support. Davutoglu emphatically denied any Turkish involvement or ties to Jihadist groups.

However, Turkey’s western allies increasingly see the Syrian war through a security lens. Three murders at a Brussels Jewish museum in May were allegedly the first terror attacks committed in Europe by a Jihadist returnee from Syria, and pressure will increase on Turkey to tighten its border. Any alleged Turkish ties to jihadists would also likely be increasingly scrutinised should attacks in Europe increase.

In such circumstances how long can Erdogan’s forlorn strategy to topple Assad continue before Turkey too is forced to prioritise a more securitised approach? That said, given the stubbornness that has characterised Erdogan’s political career thus far, don’t expect any sudden U-turns on his war in Syria just yet.

 

Western Policy towards Syria: Ten Recommendations

Chatham House Programme Paper
By Claire Spencer, Christopher Phillips and Jane Kinninmont, December 2013

See paper here

In the face of the mounting crisis in Syria over the past two and a half years, Western governments (primarily those of the United States, United Kingdom and France) have oscillated between explicit demands for President Bashar al-Assad to leave and implicit acceptance of him as a viable partner in UN-brokered peace negotiations. During this time, they have moved from considering military intervention to including al-Assad in the Geneva II meeting, tentatively scheduled for January 2014, following his agreement to surrender Syria’s chemical weapons in September.

Western positions have thus not been as consistent as those expounded by the main supporters of the Syrian government (primarily Russia and Iran). In parallel, but not directly linked to negotiations, Western governments have taken the lead in coordinating humanitarian efforts for up to half of the Syrian population, which is now in urgent need of assistance.

This paper seeks to inform a more strategic approach to the overall Western response to the crisis in Syria and its immediate neighbourhood. It argues that a more effective Western strategy must be based on moving away from the simplified popular depiction of the conflict as primarily sectarian and religiously based. Such a strategy needs to involve clearer objectives, including ending violence, minimizing killing, and preventing state collapse. It also needs to be targeted at the areas where the West has leverage, and move beyond the focus on uniting the opposition under the umbrella of the Syrian National Coalition, to engage with a broader swathe of Syrian opinion.

This paper makes the following ten recommendations for Western governments:

1. Identify clearer objectives and prioritize what matters most in Syria.

2. Safeguard the integrity of the state and what remains of civil society.

3. Focus on areas where there is leverage.

4. Engage with a wider set of Syrian actors.

5. Engage more broadly with civil society.

6. Identify areas for common ground between key players.

7. Plan for reforming post-conflict security institutions.

8. Think about how to guarantee post-conflict security.

9. See the UN as more than a humanitarian and coordinating agency.

10. Avoid seeing the crisis primarily through a sectarian lens.

Thanks for tear-gassing me, Tayyip (Notes from Turkey: Istanbul, Antakya and Ankara)

Caught in a protest

I am in Turkey at an interesting time. Last year I spent the summer here examining the government’s response to the Syria crisis, noting in a report that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s confrontation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is widely unpopular and could prompt serious opposition. While this summer’s anti-Erdogan demonstrations centred on Istanbul’s Taksim Square (and the brutality of the government’s crackdown) certainly surprised me, in essence they were rooted in the same tensions I had noted. The demonstrators’ central complaint was Erdogan’s arrogance as a leader, and his willingness to openly defy public opinion. This ranges from unpopular foreign policy, as in Syria, to sensitive domestic issues like recently imposed strict alcohol laws or the proposed demolition of Gezi Park in Taksim that prompted the unrest. Visiting Istanbul last month, it was clear from the activists and intellectuals I spoke to that protests were on hold rather than over. As it happens, they re-erupted two blocks from where I was staying in Antakya last week.

'Tayyip's Army' (Photo from the Guardian - http://bit.ly/18jPLqO)

‘Tayyip’s Army’ (Photo from the Guardian – http://bit.ly/18jPLqO)

Earlier in the summer, almost every city saw widespread and prolonged solidarity protests with Gezi Park. All but four of Turkey’s 81 provinces reportedly saw unrest, and most were met with a similar police response.  It has left its mark on the growing street-level opposition movement and one spark seems able to set off another round of nation-wide protest. That was provided on Monday night, when a 22-year-old, Ahmet Ataka, was killed by police in Antakya, himself protesting in solidarity with activists at MET University in Ankara. The cause of his death was a matter of debate: activists said he was hit by a tear-gas canister, while the police released videos showing a body falling from a high building, claiming he fell. Unaware of what had happened, I myself passed his improvised shrine on Tuesday morning and the angry crowd that had already gathered.

By the early evening, on my way back home, the police were blocking my path. Local youth had created improvised barricades, set fires on the road and a vast police presence had moved in to cordon off the area. Unlike most Antakyans, none of the police spoke Arabic: they were outsiders specifically brought in for this task. The officer gestured to me to turn back, suggesting that the rioters were shooting. However, all I heard were the repeated thuds of tear gas canisters being let off. Not knowing the city well and with my only route home blocked, I weaved my way through the side streets trying to get round the cordon. At points the air was thick with teargas, dense despite being quite far from the demonstrators. Police had gas masks to protect themselves but I had to wade through, spluttering and wincing. It wasn’t pleasant. Friends later told me that this has become common for most urban Turks this summer. The police’s tactic seems to be to fire vast quantities at protestors, irrespective of its disbursement. Later that same night an international under 21s football match between Turkey and Sweden had to be halted because tear gas had spread from nearby protests in Istiqlal Cadessi (off Taksim) and was incapacitating the players. Erdogan’s Police force, it seems, is as unconcerned by the general public as their Prime Minister.

Tayyip’s Army

Protestors have labeled the police ‘Tayyip’s Army’, militarized and well equipped with armoured cars, riot gear and a seemingly never-ending supply of teargas. But the label comes as much from the police’s perceived ideology, as it does from their appearance. Opponents claim that the majority of the police belongs to the Islamist Gulen movement, from which Erdogan’s AK Party draws much of its support. One activist claimed that at least 70% of policemen were Gulenists, and all the commanders. A commentator I spoke to argued these links were the product of a long-term trend begun in the 1980s when the socially conservative Motherland Party (many of whose members eventually joined the AKP) controlled the Ministry of Interior. At this time affiliation to Gulenism within the police was permitted and even encouraged. As such, today the police is dominated by those ideologically supportive of Erdogan’s Islamist policies that most demonstrators are protesting against. To the secularist opponent of Erdogan, the police are the Prime Minister’s foot soldiers to quash any dissent to his Islamic and conservative agenda.

Istanbul's Gezi Park - where it all started...

Istanbul’s Gezi Park – where it all started…

Ahmed Ataka was the sixth protestor to be killed by the police since the Gezi Park demonstrations began in June. Deaths are sadly not surprising given the uncompromising police approach. Erdogan insisted he would not back down or offer any compromise, calling the protestors ‘çapulcu’ or ‘bums’. (The opposition embraced this label and all over Istanbul I saw T-Shirts on sale stating ‘Everyday I’m çapulling’.) Whilst I was shocked by the level of police violence I saw in Hatay – with television showing some vomiting from too much teargas inhalation – an Ankara academic noted that this was fairly standard by Turkish standards over the last 15 or so years. What was different, he stated, was the nature of protestors. Turkish Kurds, for example, have long experienced this level of police brutality, without the same national or international outrage. What makes these protestors different, the academic stated, is their demography: middle class educated secular Turks.

The (slight) ethnic dimension

In Hatay there is a further ethnic dimension to the protests. The unrest was centred on areas dominated by Hatay’s Alawite community (known here as Nusayris, an ancient offshoot of Shia Islam). As a community the Nusayris are largely secular, and natural opponents to Erdogan’s Islamist agenda, but their opposition is deeper than that. They are not happy with the government’s policy towards neighbouring Syria. They sympathize with Bashar al-Assad, a fellow Alawi, to the point that some protestors were filmed chanting the pro-Assad slogan: ‘Syria, Allah, Bashar wa bas!’ (Syria, God, Bashar and nothing else!)[1]. Yet aside from any ethnic solidarity, they share the fears of many of Turkey’s secularists that Bashar’s fall will mean a victory for Sunni Islamists, possibly leading to increased Islamism in Turkey. Many Nusayris complain that Erdogan is exacerbating sectarianism in Turkey. They accuse him of echoing the Gulf’s anti-Shiism regarding the Syria conflict – as one commentator put it, “he is cynically pressing on all our faultlines.” Similarly, they oppose recent AKP plans to divide Hatay into two political provinces, one for Sunnis and one for Nusayris. Antakya has a history of tolerance, with Sunnis, Nusayris and Christians living side by side, and most residents oppose any divisions. Some of the more religious Sunnis in Hatay’s villages are reportedly more sympathetic to the AKP’s policies but the Antakyans I spoke to insist that in the city there is no appetite for sectarian divisions.

The view from Antakya - Syria just around the corner (on the left)

The view from Antakya – Syria just around the corner (on the left)

However, it would be wrong to characterize the protests as purely sectarian. The Nusayri may be at the vanguard of the anti-Erdogan movement in Hatay, but nationwide they are a diverse bunch. Throughout the day numerous Turkish cities saw anti-AKP demonstrations in solidarity with Ahmet Ataka, and the evening saw protests in Izmir and Istanbul, with the Police, inevitably, moving in hard. While Turkey’s non-Sunni minorities, particularly the Nusayris and Alevis (a similar Turkish-speaking Shia offshoot), may be more proportionally represented as they are most threatened by the Erdogan’s sectarianism, the majority are Sunnis, whether secularists or just democrats. Indeed, one person I spoke to who had been in Taksim in June expressed her pleasant surprise that veiled women stood alongside them, demanding an end to Erdogan’s autocratic practices.

Trouble ahead

It was clear from my trip that this movement is not going away, and Erdogan’s heavy-handed approach has only boosted its numbers. As seen by the Ahmet Ataka demonstrations I was caught up in, the anti-Erdogan movement is coordinated across multiple cities, meaning a single incident can spread like wildfire within hours. In 2011, as the Arab Spring began, Erdogan was hailed in both the West and the Middle East as a model for the newly democratizing Arab world to emulate. He was an Islamist committed to pluralism and democracy. His harsh crackdown on dissent in 2013 has exposed this lie. In reality, Erdogan had been edging away from democratic practices for several years. Though he successfully neutered the military, which interfered in Turkish politics for decades, he hasn’t accepted alternative forms of public scrutiny, arresting journalists at a dramatic rate. Indeed most of the Turkish press refused to report the Taksim protests. As one journalists said to me, “there was pressure from the editors and the pro-AKP owners to stay quiet. Noone wanted to lose their job.” Erdogan may compete in fair elections, but he seems to believe that electoral victories give him a mandate to do as he wishes until the next election, regardless of public opinion. Indeed, this is a major structural weakness of Turkey’s political system, which has an appointed president and no second chamber to scrutinize the premier.

Opposition mural, Harbiye, Hatay

Opposition mural, Harbiye, Hatay

However, though Erdogan’s reformist image at home and abroad may be shattered, he is far from finished. While the middle class secularists may be getting organized on the streets, the political opposition, the CHP, is still weak. Some are hoping that municipal elections in March will give Erdogan a bloody nose, focusing on an unlikely defeat for the AKP in the Istanbul mayoral elections. However, with Erdogan boasting a huge majority in parliament, supported by Turkey’s conservative religious hinterland, it is unlikely it will lose power any time soon. The Taksim demonstrations may derail Erdogan’s plans to ‘do a Putin’ by changing Turkey’s constitution to make himself a more powerful president, but if that happens, most expect him to remain as prime minster by altering his own party’s constitution which currently forbids this.

Yet Erdogan cannot rest on his laurels. The protests have rattled Turkey, and some wonder if the most likely challenge might come from within the AKP itself. Alongside Erdogan’s conservative base, the support of Turkey’s business community has been key to his success. Many are concerned by the damage to Turkey’s image that the constant cycle of protest and repression brings. Already it has damaged the tourism industry (occupancy rates in Istanbul hotels were very low this summer) and, more importantly, seems to have played a role in Istanbul losing its bid to host the 2020 Olympic games. If protests weaken the economy, key business leaders may begin to view the arrogant premier as more of a liability than an asset and urge the AKP to ditch their captain, with current President Abdullah Gul best positioned to swoop in. The role of the powerful Gulenist movement would also be key were any such internal coup to take place. In the long term these protests may serve as Turkey’s 1968, from which eventually civil society activists and a new generation of pluralist politicians emerges. In the short term, however, Turkey can expect the battle between the street protestors and their steadfast prime minister to continue.


[1] Ulusal TV broadcast, 2115-20, 10/9/13