BBC’s interview with Assad; Fisk on Hafez

Some interesting observations from the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, 19th June 2010:

Hafez Assad was the kind of Middle Eastern leader about whom people used words like calculating, ruthless, and dominating. He sent in tanks and artillery to crush a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982, killing thousands…

Bashar Assad is a very different man. On the couple of times I have met him he has been friendly, even charming, and answered the questions he has been asked…

Syria under Bashar Assad is trying to face in all directions at the same time. Perhaps improbably, the policy is working pretty well.

Countries who want to get closer include Russia, France, Turkey and diplomatically ambitious Brazil. Iran has been an ally since his father’s time. Syria and Iran are the main backers of Hezbollah, Israel’s implacable enemy in Lebanon.

The Americans want a rapprochement, as long as he drops some of his troublesome old friends in Beirut and Tehran. That he says he won’t do – even though the Iran connection puts Syria dangerously close to the centre of the growing and dangerous crisis over Iran’s nuclear plans.

Here in Damascus the regime operates on different wavelengths at once as well. Facebook is blocked in Syria. But the first lady has her own page with several thousand friends.

Also, Robert Fisk gives an intelligent assessment of Ridwan al-Ziadeh’s report on the brutality of life under Hafez.

Years of Fear covers the three-decade rule of Hafez el-Assad, Syria’s former air force commander whose long battle to maintain his Alawi rule and whose ferocious struggle against violent Islamist enemies clogged the fetid prisons of Syria with thousands of political prisoners. Using security forces who were often corrupt, he confronted an ever more violent sectarian guerrilla movement whose first major assault came on 16 June 1979 when an army captain, Ibrahim al-Yusuf, led the massacre of Alawi students at the Aleppo artillery school….

The Hama uprising in February 1982, in which the old, rebel-held city was virtually destroyed by tank and shell-fire, caused up to 15,000 deaths, according to Ziadeh’s report – some put the figure at 20,000. What Ziadeh oddly fails to mention is the underground fighting in Hama in which girl suicide bombers hurled themselves against Syrian troops, and previous violence in the city in which Islamists slaughtered entire families of Baath party officials. There was nothing exclusive about Syria’s mass-murderers.

Ziadeh is an interesting figure. I saw him speak last year when he was attached to Chatham House. He seems very intelligent, though soft spoken and more of an academic than a potential opposition leader. He is certainly doing some good work continuing to highlight the darker side of Syria’s past and present, and he presents a case that needs to be heard.  

Unfortunately, at least based on his work that I have read and witnessed, this is not backed up with any realistic proposals for reform. Much of his work at Chatham House, for example, was based on a flimsy comparison with post-Communist Czechoslovakia, proposing it as a model for democratisation applicable to Syria. Yet Syria has no EU carrot as did the Czechs to encourage reform. Moreover, they were surrounded by other states moving in the same direction. In a neighbourhood of autocracies, what is the incentive for Syria to change?  Whilst Ziadeh is right to highlight the atrocities of the past, he would do well to tie them to realistic proposals for the present, or else end up sounding like the great throng of bitter exiles, shouting angrily from the sidelines where only American neo-cons will listen.

Turkey and America

Interesting piece by Stephen Kinzer in the Guardian today:

Turkey’s key interest in the region is the same as America’s: stability. Only in a stable region can Turkey’s economy continue to boom. For the US, only stability will allow the withdrawal of combat forces from the region, assure energy security, and calm tensions that stoke terror. So any policy that helps calm the Middle East is good for both countries…

Whatever the effect of Turkey’s new foreign policy direction, it is not fixed for all time. It has changed considerably over the last decade, and the same could happen in the decade to come. National elections are expected next year. Panicking too quickly about one leader’s impulses is unnecessary in a democratic state where alternation in power is an established tradition.

Good ties between Turkey and the US serve the cause of regional peace. So do good ties between Turkey and Israel. All three countries should do whatever necessary to salvage this “power triangle”.

And this on a similar theme by the ever-excellent Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy:

But now we see the neoconservatives turning on Turkey, even though it is a well-functioning democracy, a member of NATO, and a strong ally of the United States. Of course,Turkey’s democracy isn’t perfect, but show me one that is. The neocons have turned from friends of Turkey to foes for one simple reason: Israel. Specifically, the Turkish government has been openly critical of Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinians, beginning with the blockade of Gaza, ramping up after the brutal bombardment of Gaza in 2008-2009, and culminating in the lethal IDF attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. As Lobe shows, a flock of prominent neoconservatives are now busily demonizing Turkey, and in some cases calling for its expulsion from NATO…

Although the United States and Israel do share certain common interests, it is becoming increasingly clear that their interests are not identical. This situation puts die-hard neoconservatives in a tough spot, as it could force them to choose between promoting what is good for America or defending what they think (usually wrongly) will be good for Israel. And insofar as prominent neocons continue to beat the drums for war, it behooves us to remember both their abysmal track record and their underlying motivations.

Turkey and Israel: the End of the Affair?

By Christopher Phillips, Shifting Sands 11th June 2010

As the dust from Israel’s 31st May attack on a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship continues to settle, and the various sides push their own accounts of who violated which international laws and protocols, one thing is for certain: Turkish-Israeli relations are in dire straits. Despite a long history of friendship, tensions between the two have been simmering since Tel Aviv’s sudden invasion of Gaza in December 2008, further exacerbated by Israel’s public humiliation of Turkey’s ambassador and Ankara’s improving ties with the Jewish state’s enemies in Tehran and Damascus. However, the events 77 miles off the coast of Gaza, in which 4 Turks were amongst the 9 activists killed, has brought matters to a new low with Turkish PM Erdogan declaring the raid a ‘massacre’ and recalling his ambassador to Tel Aviv. So why has this decline come about?

Commentators in the pro-Israel camp have been quick to blame Ankara’s hostility on the Islamist roots of Turkey’s ruling AKP party. According to this narrative, the AKP, angry at continual rejection by the EU, is turning its attention eastwards to recast Turkey in the Ottoman role of dominant power in the Middle East. One writer, the Dayan Centre’s Joshua Teitelbaum, even went far enough to accuse Erdogan of waging ‘Jihad’ on Israel. Yet such analysis is severely flawed. The AKP have been in power since 2002 and, until the Gaza war of 2008, enjoyed excellent relations with Israel: extending military and economic cooperation and mediating Tel Aviv’s peace talks with Syria. Certainly no such Islamist ideological opposition to Israel was visible in those first six years.

Similarly Turkey has in no way turned its back on Europe. The EU remains Turkey’s principal trading partner, an economic relationship that has prompted the unprecedented growth that is allowing Ankara greater financial clout in the Middle East. Far from an Islamic idealism, Turkish foreign relations under the AKP has been characterised by a flexible realism. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s notion of ‘zero problems with neighbours’ has allowed Ankara to maintain and indeed strengthen its ties with Europe whilst abandoning historical hostilities with Russia, Greece, Syria and Iran in order to enhance Turkey’s influence in its surrounding countries.

The decline in relations with Tel Aviv is therefore better explained by Israel’s bizarrely provocative behaviour towards Turkey, rather than a renewed Islamic idealism in Ankara. Indeed, until recently Israel too could be considered a neighbour with which Turkey had ‘zero problems’, as illustrated by the first six years of AKP-Israel harmony. Yet Israel has seemed foolishly insensitive to Turkish national pride in its recent actions. Erdogan felt personally betrayed, for example, in 2008 when he had spent hours mediating a potential peace deal between Tel Aviv and Damascus, only for then Israeli Premier Olmert to scupper the talks by launching the Gaza invasion without any consultation with Ankara. Similarly current Israeli Foreign Officials deliberately humiliated the Turkish ambassador in 2009 by making him sit in a ‘low chair’ during a televised interview, prompting public outrage in Turkey. Now, following the flotilla crisis, despite Israel’s pleas that they had asked Ankara not to sanction the convoy, four bodies returned home to Turkey who had been shot at point-blank range by their government’s supposed ally – a difficult position for any leader to justify to an angry nationalist population.

Yet these actions point to a wider trend in the Middle East on behalf of both actors. For Israel, it displays an even greater siege mentality than usual under the stewardship of Premier Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman. This government’s willingness to discard any international criticism whether it be over the Gaza blockade or stolen western identities to assassinate Hamas leaders in Dubai, and their direct refusal of US wishes to halt West Bank settlements, suggests a leadership convinced of its own rectitude and steadfast refusal to compromise, whatever the costs to its international image. In this light, losing its oldest and most important Muslim ally is a price it seems strangely willing to pay.

For Turkey, we see an emerging regional power that has less and less need of an ally whose actions are increasingly indefensible. In the end, Israel is a tiny market of 6 million consumers, whilst the Arab and Muslim Middle East offer much more. Ankara, one suspects, would rather not have to choose, but conversely, Erdogan will be aware of his rising star in the Middle East as a champion of the Palestinians – even if his primary motivation remains Turkish national interests.

As such trends continue, Israel should be cautious not to disregard Turkey’s importance. This is no powerless Arab dictatorship but a thriving, militarily strong, democratic regional giant. Moreover, Western states, notably the US, have long looked to Turkey as its role model in the Muslim World: proof that Islam and democracy can be compatible. At the final analysis, Tel Aviv should understand that, from a realist perspective that ignores the power of domestic lobbies and sentimental attachments, Turkey is far more important to American and European long-term objectives in the Middle East than Israel is. The last thing Tel Aviv should do is to deliberately provoke circumstances whereby the West has to choose.