The Turkish Left and the Syrian Conflict

As Syria’s civil conflict has grown into an all-out war, with the death toll reaching 36,000 and thousands of refugees – now up to 10 percent of the Syrian population – fleeing over the country’s borders each day, the global community continues to disagree about how to stop the violence. The Syria issue has also become a hot topic in Turkish domestic politics. While the ruling party’s threats of military force risk Turkey’s security and long-term stability, opposition to any involvement at all by some factions of the country’s left wing also deserves criticism. The Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) stance on Syria, though, is a bright spot among the left’s intellectual foundering, as it has reached a more mature, balanced view. This article will explore the marginal left wing’s “Syria problem,” and contrast it with the CHP’s call for a diplomatic solution. It would be safe to argue that marginalized actors within the Turkish left could be seen as the major setback for the future success of the left in the country.

Even though the ruling party’s position on Syria has been problematic and dangerous, various fragments within the Turkish left have also made serious mistakes during the crisis.

In order to assess the situation, we shall first give a look at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s position on the issue. Turkey has long claimed to have a foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” In this light, when Syria began cracking down on its opposition last year, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attempted to maintain good ties with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, long after it was clear that he was brutally oppressing his own people. Ankara’s sudden change of position to oppose al-Assad appeared to be based more on worries about being on the wrong side of history than on genuine humanitarian concerns. Along the way, the AKP government’s flip-flopping on the issue alienated neighbors on both sides of the conflict – among them Israel, Iran, Iraq and Russia.

The miscalculation of the government is reflected in public opinion, which is running firmly against the idea of such an intervention. On the Syrian side, the formation of a new rebel umbrella group in Cairo instead of Istanbul suggests that opposition figures are skeptical of the self-proclaimed mediator role that Turkey has adopted. In short, Syria has become the worst failure of the “zero problems” thinking embodied in the policy doctrine of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

Barack Obama

Mideast Syria

Even though the ruling party’s position on Syria has been problematic and dangerous, various fragments within the Turkish left have also made serious mistakes during the crisis. Some in these leftist circles have claimed that the conflict in Syria was fueled by Western powers, especially the U.S., and have attempted to portray al-Assad as a legitimate leader fulfilling his responsibility to protect his nation from internal traitors.

This ill-formulated line of thinking is a product of long-term and chronic anti-U.S. sentiments among the Turkish left. Al-Assad’s mistreatment of his people is real, even if the Turkish government originally chose to overlook it. And amid the upheaval of the Arab Spring, the spreading of the revolutionary atmosphere to Syria was a natural progression of events. But Turkey’s left wing failed to see the legitimate causes of the conflict, preferring to fall back on the comfortable ground of conspiracy theory.

This superficial approach strengthened the hand of the AKP in its turnabout to assume the role of the “friend” of the Syrian people. The left’s refusal to recognize the real dimensions of the crisis polarized the thinking about Syria within Turkey, giving the government opportunity to implement overly drastic, interventionist steps such as supporting armed Syrian opposition groups.

The left’s stance is also a reflection of the isolationist approach it has adopted in foreign policy. Some, even as they concede the scope of the humanitarian crisis, have argued against any Turkish involvement whatsoever, diplomatic or otherwise. The government, meanwhile, has already given the green light to a military intervention via a bill that was passed in parliament in October. But sending troops to the Syrian battlefield would be a mistake with dire consequences for Turkey and the region, and it’s not even certain whether such an intervention would solve the crisis. However, diplomatic intervention and humanitarian assistance to refugees are a different matter and worthy of support. The Turkish left should have been a staunch supporter of Turkey welcoming displaced refugees, as the main tenants of leftist ideology would require.

A third factor is the Turkish left’s misunderstanding of the international community’s aims in getting involved in Syria. In particular, many have made the wrong assumptions about the U.S.’s role in the conflict. Washington is neither looking to play an active role nor to encourage Turkey to lead a military operation. Escalating the Syria conflict would likely set off a chain reaction in the Middle East, at a time when the U.S. is intent on drawing down its presence there for two reasons. First, Washington simply must cut back on military spending amid its debt woes, and second, U.S. strategists would like to shift the focus to the Asia-Pacific region. However, the Middle East seems like a tight boot the U.S. cannot remove from its foot.

It is safe to say that the U.S. is worried about the Turkish government’s hawkish position on Syria, fearing a potential bilateral military conflict. And since the U.S. election on Nov. 6, it has become clear that the Obama administration will not significantly change its position on Syria in its second term. Rather, Turkish policymakers should take seriously the White House’s repeatedly stated policy of relying on Middle Eastern allies to police their own region. It would be a dire mistake to make foreign policy choices based on the assumption that the U.S. would offer military support.

On Nov. 14, in his first news conference after reelection, President Obama reiterated the U.S. government’s concerns about arming the rebels, a strategy which could result in weapons ending up in the hands of extremists who want to do harm to U.S. national security interests in the region. The AKP government, meanwhile, remains eager to try more aggressive and militarily interventionist solutions, without properly assessing the potential consequences of such actions.

Instead of blaming Washington for pushing Ankara into the Syrian conflict, the Turkish left should have recognized that the opposite is true, and criticized the AKP for trying to pull a superpower into a regional conflict. Accusing the government of warmongering would be a more efficient and convincing strategy.

But Turkey’s left wing failed to see the legitimate causes of the conflict, preferring to fall back on the comfortable ground of conspiracy theory.

Key to the success of a new Syria policy direction will be the role of other regional powers, namely Russia, which along with Iran has been a firm supporter of the al-Assad regime throughout the crisis. Russia, like China, has not played a constructive role so far in the crisis and a shift on the part of Moscow could break the Syrian stalemate. Turkey’s strong economic and political relationship with Russia puts the country in a key position in this regard; for example, Ankara might find a bargaining chip in its close energy ties with Moscow. However, the AKP government was among the first to give up on diplomacy, not even making a serious attempt at talks with Russia to dissuade it from its support for the al-Assad regime. With President Vladimir Putin assuming an increasingly hostile position toward the western world since returning to the presidency, opening up a negotiating front with Russia to end the crisis would offer a historic opportunity for Turkey to live up to the regional leadership it has claimed. The Turkish left should be emphasizing the message that the government, despite its assertions, has not exhausted all the diplomatic options yet.

Turkey’s main opposition party, CHP, has set a brave and proactive vision on the Syrian issue, and became the most efficient opposition mechanism despite a slow start in the earlier stages of the crisis. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaro€lu, writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, clearly asserted the party views al-Assad as a brutal dictator who has no place in the future of Syria, and that the refugee problem should not be used to polarize the Turkish population. His opposition to the idea of arming the Syrian rebels, in line with the U.S. position on the issue, was a brave and decisive move. He also urged a refreshed approach to diplomacy to resolve the conflict. Despite the cacophony coming from various segments of the Turkish left, CHP remains its leading representative, and its matured Syrian policy provides a good blueprint for what the Turkish government should implement.

This should open up an opportunity for the Turkish left to take a principled and coherent stand. The left’s problem until now has been that it lacks a coherent set of economic and foreign policy beliefs. The Syria crisis has demonstrated the need for a new foreign policy, based on universal enlightenment principles and Turkey’s indigenous identity, to promote cooperation and democracy. The goal should be to strike a balance between the isolationist approach of the previous few decades and the AKP’s more recent aggressive approach, which has proven to be nothing more than rhetoric. Turkey has the capability to help end the misery of its Syrian neighbors. It would be a crying shame if bad policy stopped the country from rising to the occasion.

About Cenk Sidar

Managing Director, Sidar Global Agency