Syria’s Refugees: When did the West become so heartless?

Recently I went to see Miss Saigon at the West End, a tragic musical set in the years after the Vietnam War. In one scene, the lead characters flee on a crowded boat full of migrants from dictatorship and violence in their homeland, risking their lives in search of safety. This suddenly began to look familiar. For those who have followed the Syrian civil war since its outbreak in 2011 the story is sadly well known: millions have fled, thousands by boat, but without the singing, dancing and comic relief. My interest piqued: how was the Indochina refugee crisis dealt with and what might we learn for Syria? Even a cursory investigation showed there was one standout difference between then and now: the western governments of that era put today’s leaders to shame.

(Syrian migrants rescued - Image from UNHCR)

(Syrian migrants rescued – Image from UNHCR)

The late 1970s saw a massive refugee crisis in Indochina. Communist takeovers in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, along with Vietnam’s wars with its neighbours created millions of refugees. By 1979 over a million had fled, mostly to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, who housed them in camps. In the first six months of 1979 alone 209,000 refugees had arrived, including many ‘boat people’ that died making the perilous journey. Malaysia and Thailand, both overwhelmed, declared they would take no more. At the invitation of the UN Secretary General in July 1979, 65 countries came together at a conference where Western states agreed to accept 260,000 refugees a year. In the space of 18 months, more than 450,000 Indochinese refugees were resettled from camps to new homes in the west, mostly in the US, Canada, France and Australia.

The scale of the Syria refugee crisis dwarfs that of Indochina. There are currently over 4 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR who, like the Indochinese have fled a vicious conflict and brutal dictatorship (whether Assad or ISIS) mostly to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. As these countries have become overwhelmed and increased restrictions on the refugees, thousands have resorted to boats across the Mediterranean hoping to make it to the EU. In a sad retelling of the Indochinese tragedy , today Europe has its own ‘boat people’ risking their lives to flee. According to UNHCR Syrians make up by far the largest number of the boat people, with the number crossing to the Greek islands close to Turkey peaking this summer. 160,000 migrants have crossed to Greece since January, 20,843 alone. In contrast 27,000 were arriving by boat per month at the height of the Indochinese crisis.

So where is the UN Secretary General and the conference to resettle Syria’s refugees the way western countries so admirably did in 1979? In December last year UNHCR asked members to pledge resettlement for 130,000 Syrians – half that asked for (and met) in the Indochina crisis. Yet the response was lukewarm at best. As of August 2015 73,863 places had been promised by western countries. A handful of states shouldered most, with Germany promising 35,000 places, Canada taking 10,000 and Norway 9,000. The US has offered a separate ‘open-ended resettlement’ to 16,286. Sweden’s relatively low 2,700 should not mask that it with Germany has so far hugely outstripped other EU members’ efforts (Sweden has 40,000, Germany 100,000). The most shameful figures came from France and Britain, two states that have been heavily involved in the Syria conflict, with France offering only 1000 places and Britain only 197 in its Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. While many Syrians have come to Britain and France independently and then successfully claimed asylum, these are mostly the wealthy and/or educated and not the same as resettling refugees. This does little to ease the burden on those states hosting the most in need.

So what has changed? Why were western states willing to resettle four times as many Indochinese refugees a year in 1979 as they have been willing to house in total from Syria? Westerners are no worse off or less capable of hosting refugees than they were in the late 70s. Taking arguably the worst offender, Britain, as an example, the economic situation then was not dissimilar to now. In 1979-82 Britain suffered a recession, far worse than the sluggish growth it has faced during the height of the Syria refugee crisis (2012-15). GDP per capita averaged $9k, comparable in today’s prices to the $40k it averaged in 2012-15, while unemployment averaged 7.5%, compared to 7.3% in 2012-15. In another parallel, in May 1979 a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher came to power on a platform of rolling back the state, one seemingly emulated by David Cameron and George Osbourne today. Yet that government accepted nearly 25,000 Indochinese refugees, compared to 197 from Syria now.

Two things stand out when comparing government attitudes to Syria’s refugees and those of Indochina. Firstly, there was a greater recognition of the refugees’ victim status. States with few historical ties to Indochina such as Canada (and indeed Britain) were willing to provide refuge (and relief for the overwhelmed host countries) out of a sense of moral duty. Today, that moral duty extends only to funding the host countries – Britain points to its generosity in this regard when deflecting from its poor resettling record. Yet politicians including the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary don’t hesitate to use dehumanizing language about asylum seekers approaching their shores.

Secondly, the western sense of responsibility for the refugees’ plight that drove proceedings in 1979 seems absent today. The US, which had a military presence in Vietnam for decades and bombed Cambodia and Laos, eventually took over 1 million Indochinese from 1979-97, while another combatant, Australia, took 185,000 and the former colonial master, France, over 100,000. Each seemed to implicitly accept some responsibility for the mess. Today, the US, Britain and France have all contributed to Syria’s civil war, providing political, economic, lethal and non-lethal support for the rebels. They may claim this was the morally right thing to do against Assad’s onslaughts, yet won’t extend the same morality to resettling the conflict’s refugees. Moreover, many of the destabilizing forces driving violence in Syria today – Jihadism, sectarianism, regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia – were the product of or greatly exacerbated by the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain.

Of course many of the other states who have helped fuel the war in Syria are just as bad, with Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, having resettled barely any refugees (the Gulf states house many Syrians but, like Britain and France, mostly wealthier and skilled workers who have arrived independently). Yet this is not an excuse for a lack of leadership from western states and it would be much easier to pressure those states to accept more refugees once the west has done likewise. After years of refusing to deal with the problem, it is high time western leaders rediscovered the spirit of 1979 and took the lead.

 

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The Plight of Syria’s Refugees is Another Security Crisis in the Making

Chatham House Expert Comment

By Christopher Phillips and Neil Quilliam

If the objective of Western policy is to prevent fall-out from the Syrian conflict leading to a direct terrorist threat to their countries, then policy-makers would do well to consider the significant economic, social, educational and security challenges a refugee crisis presents, to both the host nations and the international community. 

Although Syria’s civil war remains in the headlines, largely thanks to Islamic State (IS), Syrian refugees have dropped on the policy priority list. Given the protracted nature of the Syria conflict, refugee communities will likely remain a fixture in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Host governments, communities, international donors and refugees themselves need to move from short-term emergency planning to long-term development. However, neglecting the needs of Syria’s refugees and failing to help neighbouring host countries and communities accommodate their long term presence will store problems for the future.

While most Turks, Jordanians and Lebanese initially welcomed the refugees, the number of refugees (3.1 million and counting) and the long-term nature of the crisis means that, unless addressed, tensions between host and refugee communities will rise, as competition over resources intensifies.

The longer the refugees stay the more Ankara and Amman will be pressured by their own populations to move all Syrians into camps; a move believed by host communities to remove the threat to local jobs. However, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) warn against this strongly, discourage further camp building and urge that refugees be given the right to work. They argue that experience from other long-term crises has taught that integrating refugees into host economies not only helps retain critical skills and experience, but over time improves relations with hosts, as their contribution is viewed an asset rather than a burden.

In 2013 UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, estimated that up to 80 per cent of Syrian refugees of school age in Lebanon were not in school, and many INGOs fear of a ‘lost generation’ of refugees growing up across the region without access to education. Not only will this limit their ability to help rebuild Syria if and when they return after the war, it also increases the chances of radicalization by militant groups. Again, INGOs cite other examples, including amongst Palestinian and Afghani refugees, where the neglect of pressing education, social and economic issues over time has led to a permissive environment that supports militarization. With jihadism and sectarianism on the rise, it is a serious security risk, as well as a neglect of basic rights to leave so many young men and women disenfranchised.

A sustained international effort is required if Syria’s refugees are to be given the chance to contribute towards host communities and eventually prepare for return. In the immediate term, donors should increase their support for UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP). The under-funded WFP recently cut support for Syria’s refugees. Cash payments for refugees in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq have been halved and the calorific value of food bundles reduced to 825 calories a day. In the meantime, UNHCR has reported receipt of only 51 per cent of the $3.7 billion needed to support Syria’s 3.1 million refugees this year.

Saudi Arabia, a regional economic giant that has sent funds and weapons into the civil war, has contributed only $2.9 million to UNHCR in 2014. While the UK and US have spent more than most, their outlay in 2014 still pales compared to the $1.1 billion the Pentagon has spent on ‘destroying and degrading’ IS since June. Similarly, Western states need to revisit their policies on taking Syrian refugees. 100,000 have declared asylum in EU countries and a handful have been resettled, but this is a drop in the ocean compared to Syria’s neighbours. Unless Europe revises its approach, the number of refugees seeking illegal entry will continue; already 3,000 have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year.

The failure to address these problems could leave Syria’s refugee communities posing not only a threat to regional stability, but also Western capitals. Few Western policy-makers saw the Arab Spring coming, nor were they prepared for the emergence of IS. This time, there can be no excuse for not seeing it coming.

The Syria and its Neighbours Policy Initiative is a major multi-year research and convening project focusing on the long-term impact of the conflict on Syria’s immediate neighbours, which aims to support a coordinated and holistic policy response.

 

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.

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.

 

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

The Security Situation in Syria and its Regional Implications

Below is the transcript of a presentation I recently gave in Marrakech:

I have been asked to talk about the security situation in Syria and its regional implications and will therefore divide my comments in two. First I’ll discuss the internal situation in Syria and then the impact of the crisis on the immediate neighbours and the wider region. Finally I’ll offer a few conclusions and, if time, possible policy considerations.

Slow collapse in Syria

The Syrian state is in the process of a slow collapse. Today, the regime’s authority extends over less than half of Syria. Under pressure from the armed opposition, Bashar al-Assad has withdrawn from certain ‘expendable’ regions to concentrate his limited military resources on key areas. This ‘rump’ Syria includes areas dominated by minorities that continue to support Assad, notably the Alawites along the coast. It also includes the tactically vital cities of Homs and Hama, connecting the coastal region with Damascus, but where the regime must deploy a heavy military presence as it enjoys less support. Perhaps the weakest, but most essential link in this chain of holdouts is Damascus itself. Though rebels control sympathetic poor suburbs, the regime has reinforced the centre and will likely fight to retain it in Stalingrad-esq street battles.

Though the regime retains pockets of the second city Aleppo and elsewhere, after a shift in tactics and a surge in foreign weapons, opposition forces now control large swathes of northern and eastern Syria. They are currently slowly expanding across eastern and southern Syria, hoping to eventually reach Damascus from either direction. Separately, the regime has withdrawn from the Kurdish regions of north-east Syria, and the two main Kurdish political groupings – one backed by Turkey’s PKK, the other by Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani – are administering the territory in an uneasy truce with each other.

It is clear, by now, that Assad will never give up power. Assad and his tight inner family circle, led by his mother, have shown a willingness to give up half the country without compromising, suggesting there is no tipping point for them. The fact they have adopted a scorched earth policy and manipulated Syria’s minorities, especially the Alawites, into believing this is a war of survival, suggests they would rather rip Syria into sectarian fiefdoms than give up power.

Assad has been supported on this cynical and destructive path by key international allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, who have variously provided diplomatic support, finance, weapons and fighters. None has any particular love of Assad, but all fear an opposition victory might ‘flip’ Syria into a Saudi/western sphere of influence. Russia has backed Assad but even it now acknowledges the need for a negotiated transition, perhaps fearing that the collapse of Syria into anarchy is worse than diminished influence. Iran and Hezbollah see things differently. For them this war is zero sum, and both have sent fighters to prop up Assad: hundreds from Hezbollah and reportedly up to 15,000 from Iran’s Republican Guard. Unlike Russia, they see anarchy as better than an opposition victory, and have consequently created a Basij-style Syrian militia, the Jaysh al-Shabi, now 50,000 strong to fight and preserve its interests in Syria should Assad fall.

Anarchy or a failed state of some sort does seem most likely if Assad does fall, given the state of the opposition. While there are some reports of local committees forming and providing services in rebel-held areas, in general the opposition appears too fragmented and divided to realistically form a government capable of holding Syria together. Efforts by the West, Turkey and the Gulf states to form a united opposition in exile, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, have largely failed, with differences emerging over ideology, personal ties and external backers. The position of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is disproportionally favoured by Turkey and Qatar but disliked by many secularists, is a case in point and recently caused the well-respected coalition president Moaz al-Khatib, to resign in protest.

The greatest weakness of the opposition coalition, however, is its inability to win the loyalty of the rebel fighters on the ground. Jihadist fighters, notably Jubhat al-Nusra, who completely reject the Opposition Coalition, are growing in numbers, swelled by foreign fighters and using the distribution of aid in war torn areas to win local support. They fight under a black banner with the stated goal of establishing an Islamic state and have played into Assad’s cynical manipulation of minorities’ fears by adopting sectarian slogans. In contrast, the non-Jihadist rebels, are a diverse collection of local militia, united by a desire to topple Assad and a three star flag, but little else. Their loyalty, ideology and names are quite fluid, but most are some brand of Islamists, such as the largest, the Salafist Farouq Brigades. There are increasingly fewer of the secularists or ‘moderate’ Islamists that western observers want to see, but they oppose Jihadism, and fights have already broken out with Jubhat al-Nusra. Even if Assad falls then, the chances are that a civil war of some sorts will continue. Certainly the remnants of the regime and Iran’s militia will continue to fight, but its likely the opposition will fight among themselves, not to mention the Kurdish forces.

Regional Impact

For Syria’s neighbours, the civil war has caused the immediate problem of a massive refugee influx – over 1 million in total – and the potential for political instability. Iraq, has witnessed the most related violence, with the under-represented Sunni community boosted by the success of Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition. Violence from Sunni radicals, linked to Syria’s jihadists, has increased considerably since 2012 and Shia Prime Minister Maliki fears that the two together will reignite Iraq’s sectarian conflict, when Assad falls, or even before.

Lebanon similarly has seen its own sectarian tensions raised. Violence has broken out between pro and anti Assad groups, particularly between Sunnis and Alawis in Tripoli. Hezbollah, the most powerful Lebanese militia, has thus far resisted entering the fray, but may preemptively seize power in Beirut if Assad fell. Prime Minister Mikati’s recent resignation, raising the possibility that elections scheduled for June will be postponed, has stoked tensions further and Lebanon’s fate seems irrecoverably tied to Syria’s.

Like Lebanon, Jordan has received over 300,000 refugees and, while the immediate danger is less pronounced, there are long term worries. Jordan cannot afford to house the refugees, either economically or politically. It fears that jihadists in Syria will start to target Jordan, perhaps via the refugee population. Moreover, King Abdullah worries that the economic strains caused by the refugees alongside the popular perception that he is not doing enough to support the Syrian rebels will boost the growing protest movement against him. Consequently he has recently broken with his previous neutral policy to allow the West and Saudi to train rebel fighters in Jordan. Yet this risks making Jordan a possible target for Syrian retaliation.

Turkey, in contrast, is heavily invested in Assad’s fall, having facilitated the rebels arms procurement and access to Syria. However, its own fears of instability caused by the Syria crisis have lessened recently having neutralized Assad’s ally, the PKK, through an internal peace process and diluted internal sectarian tensions by moving Syrian refugees away from Turkish Alawi areas. But, these issues could yet resurface and it may yet suffer blowback for having allowed more radical rebels into Syria if it becomes a failed state.

Israel’s more ambivalent stance has shifted recently as the Syrian state unravels. Israel’s priorities are now to ensure that Assad’s vast chemical weapons are not transferred to Hezbollah, and to secure the occupied Golan Heights. In recent months Israel has become more active in the conflict: launching attacks on suspected chemical weapons convoys, firing on regime troops near Golan and constructing a massive new border fence. More unilateral intervention can be expected.

Finally, a brief word on the wider region. While the civil war continues to be primarily driven by domestic players, it is also a battleground between regional powers. The Obama administration has adopted a Nixonian strategy of allowing regional allies to take the lead rather than directly intervening, allowing Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular to intensify their proxy war with Iran. Qatar is the more zealous partner, responsible for most of the arms going to rebels, while Saudi has shown more caution of late, worried about the emergence of jihadists that may lead to blowback at home. Worryingly, however, is that both sides are utilizing sectarian language and backing those who do – a trend that emerged after the fall of Saddam in 2003 to combat the consequent growth of Iranian power. This regional trend towards Sunni-Shia sectarianism is a major danger. It is being played out in Syria today but could have far reaching negative consequences across the region in the future.

Conclusions

So, to conclude, Syria is in a truly tragic situation, largely down to the cynical and vicious polices of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, it is still possible for things to get even worse. Despite all the talk of sectarianism in Syria, the majority of Syrians have thus far resisted sectarian violence, but this could change and, if it does, it is hard to see how Syrian society could ever be rebuilt. Similarly, while the Syrian state is in the process of collapsing, it has not collapsed yet. The longer the war goes on, the more Syria’s institutions will erode and when Assad is eventually toppled, the state will be too weak to function, leaving it as a potential haven for jihadists and warlords. These two scenarios would have massive destabilizing effects on the region and could be fatal to the state known as ‘Syria’. As such, while everyone wants Assad to go, it should not be a goal to be achieved at any cost. The main priorities must be the preservation of the Syrian state, the prevention of the descent into sectarian violence and preventing the spread of conflict to Syria’s neighbours.

I would recommend four policies to achieve these goals. Firstly, Syria’s neighbours need more economic and security support not least to help with the 1 millions refugees – who have been woefully let down by the international community – but also to stabilize the regimes of Lebanon, Jordan and, importantly, Iraq.

Secondly, don’t arm the rebels. Whatever the intentions, weapons are likely to fall into the wrong hands. Jihadist groups might steal hardware from ‘moderates’ and who’s to say ‘moderates’ given weapons won’t later radicalize? Though some argue that arming the rebels will tip the balance of power against Assad, Iran and Hezbollah would likely increase weapons and troop numbers to redress the balance, seeing the conflict as zero sum. Some have argued instead that by arming the rebels Assad may be forced to the negotiating table and a transition achieved, but Assad has no intention of negotiating and would rather destroy the state than compromise power. Arming the rebels just pours more fuel on the fire.

Thirdly, efforts need to be made to persuade the regional powers backing either side to back down from their zero sum approach. At present Syria is likely to be destroyed before one side comes out decisively on top, irrespective of any extra arms sent. Qatar in particular needs reigning in, and Iran needs to be offered a place at the table, possibly via a friendly third party, such as Iraq.

Finally, there is a need to return to the UN. Russia has accepted that Assad must go in the long run, but wants a transition that doesn’t require him to step down as a prerequisite. Compromises need to be made on all sides to prevent Syria’s disintegration. Russia being allowed to maintain its influence in a transition government that involves some elements of the old regime as already suggested by Syrian opposition President Moaz al-Khatib, should be considered. Some may call this and unrealistic, but it is no more unrealistic than the idea that arming the rebels will somehow hasten the war’s end. No option is pretty, but compromise and bringing Russia and the UN back on board looks the best bet to preserve the Syrian state and avoid extended regional chaos.

Into the Quagmire: Turkey’s Frustrated Syria Policy

My new paper for Chatham House on Turkey’s response to the Syria crisis can be downloaded here. The summary states:

  • After a decade of cooperation and closeness with Syria, Turkey’s policy has changed radically as a result of the 2011–12 crisis in Syria. It is now openly calling for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and actively sponsoring the opposition.
  • Since March 2011 Turkey has escalated its policy towards Syria in four stages: trying to persuade Assad to reform; cutting diplomatic ties; supporting regional and international political solutions; and, supporting and aiding Syria’s political and armed opposition. While advocating a fifth stage – direct military intervention against the Assad regime, such as a no-fly zone or humanitarian corridor – Turkey is unwilling to act unilaterally.
  • Turkey has already received over 135,000 Syrian refugees, has been bombarded by Assad’s forces and fears the use of chemical weapons. Any further disintegration of the Syrian state could provide a launch pad for Turkish Kurdish separatists and might raise questions about Turkey’s own territorial integrity. Economic concerns have also been raised should the crisis spread into the key market of northern Iraq.
  • Turkey has recently proposed talks with Russia, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to help resolve the Syria crisis. While unlikely to lead anywhere in the foreseeable future, such a multilateral process may be needed to help stabilize Syria and prevent state collapse if and when Assad eventually falls.