As governments strive to influence Syria’s future and the international public keeps wondering what to expect next, the principal trajectory of events that brought mayhem to this country is largely overlooked.
Syria has been the cauldron of almost every dynamic unleashed following the Arab uprisings in 2011. The essential message of those peaceful upheavals was loud, simple and clear. Those brave masses had risen up for dignity, freedom and better bread. They demanded to be recognized as citizens, not subjects.
However, those uprisings could unseat a mere handful of autocrats. Even that modest outcome is now difficult to discern as the process of change was reversed in Egypt (arguably the most pivotal country in the Arab fold), is still in shambles in Libya, has metamorphosed into a consuming regional conflict in Yemen and lost its glow in others, save Tunisia.
The deeper significance of that fateful year to be understood, and for that matter, in the future, lies elsewhere, however. There was evidently no domino effect that would bring down stale and ruthless regimes across the region in quick succession, but that very specter was sufficient for Arab rulers to feel a chill down their spines. This changed their world for good. A roughly century-old status quo that primarily depended on a region-wide conviction that leaders could rule at will was exposed. It is also worth noting here that bad blood between some of those leaders in the past was not a challenge to the status quo, but in fact reinforced it, as such hostilities served to perpetuate the individual regimes at home. This time around, though, the people’s power demonstrated that no one is untouchable.
The uniform response of all the regimes that survived or were yet to encounter protest was understandably a defensive one. Drawing on the experience of the other ongoing uprisings, these regimes took greater care in quelling any sign of unrest on their home turf, and, perhaps more importantly, repositioned themselves beyond their borders, as matters looked decidedly less assured in the neighborhood. This repositioning involved pushing their physical defensive lines progressively farther from their own borders. In this swift process, Syria ceased to be regarded as a fellow country, and instead became the locus of the struggle to kill every conceivable dynamic for democratic change.
First, like in Egypt, the Syrian regime and the Islamists quickly became strange bedfellows in obliterating the message of the uprisings. Yet, the pedigree of the Syrian regime enticed Assad to opt for more violent tactics than those of his peers in Egypt. Within a matter of months, he managed to transform the scene from one of massive peaceful demonstrations into trench battles between the army and armed groups, which in the process degenerated into a motley crew of fundamentalists.
Such was the scene when regional and international players began charting active roles for themselves in Syria. Syria was indeed a highly suitable theatre for them. Like Iraq, Syria is a microcosm of the region. This is by virtue of the religious and ethnic make-up of its population and its location, which includes quite different neighbors. These characteristics attract friends and foes alike — and they are prone to manipulation, as every outsider may find someone to act with or through once the regime’s territorial control is curtailed.
For Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries that stepped in, the objective was three-pronged. They would deal with Syria’s frustrating leadership, trivialize the popular calls for freedom and assign a worthwhile occupation to their own Islamist radicals who would otherwise be tempted to turn on their dynasties in this time of great uncertainty.
Iran did not like the nature of the uprisings. They signified something different than its Islamic revolution. In fact, Iran was so perturbed that, belying its standard unruffled composure, it impulsively sent warships through the Suez Canal (a first after the 1979 Revolution) to have them anchored off the Syrian coast, and moved the two leaders of the Green Movement from house arrest to prison in the opening weeks of the 2011 uprisings. It was determined to protect its strategic jewel in the region and eventually got involved in the Syrian war in a big way.
Russia, which was equally, if not more, interested in maintaining and consolidating its holdings in the Levant that it had only gradually retaken after the liquidation of the Soviet Union, made its decisive strategic move in 2015, when the Assad rule was nearing collapse.
As for the United States and the European Union, all they could project was haphazard and skittish responses until the IS (the so-called “Islamic State”) threat — itself partially the product of poor crisis management — emerged, and the refugee crisis loomed large. Only then they stepped in. Yet again, their reluctant interventionism was not guided by any coherent policy on the crisis in its entirety. That was a sad thing to observe. For unlike the powers hitherto mentioned, as democratic nations, they had the distinct capacity to see through the immediate challenges and grasp the underlying causes of this mayhem. The West concentrated on stemming the refugee flow towards its territories and dealing militarily with IS terror. The Syrian people’s desire for freedom was not relevant for them. The US president should be given credit for being candid in voicing precisely this approach.
As for Turkey, the Syrian uprising and its descent into a regional conflict would have presented a serious dilemma even under a different government. A choice still had to be made at some early stage between continuing normal neighborly relations with Syria and rejecting the regime’s conduct of violence, hence taking a clear position on the uprising.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s considerations went beyond that, however. From the onset of the Arab uprisings, but especially after the fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt grew, the government, with its Islamist lineage, began to view these regional events in a different light. Instead of seeing them as the beginning of a historic turning point which, if brought to its conclusion, could gradually usher in representative and accountable governance across its southern geography, the Turkish leadership decided to seize the opportunity to create a like-minded north-south axis across the region. The likelihood of governing mandates for the Brotherhood movement should elections take place in the countries in flux (since no other political movement that initially emerged through the uprisings had the grassroots organizational capacity that the Brotherhood did) underpinned the government’s narrative for democratic change in the region. Morsi’s ascent to power in Egypt sealed the government’s conviction regarding the direction of change.
Matters soon unraveled, however. 2013 was the turning point. Morsi was removed from power by the military. In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood had lost much of its domestic influence by the onset of the civil war and was reduced to being an opposition in exile, an outcome which undoubtedly pleased the Assad leadership. Having internalized the prospects for the Brotherhood when they looked promising, the AKP leadership now saw this reversal as an existential challenge onto itself as well. The toughening of its rhetoric (alongside the “Rabia” hand gesture, which became a standard symbol) from that point on has much to do with this inward projection.
These shifts occurred as the battles in Syria raged, expanded and blurred the border with Iraq. Myriad jihadist groups unified under the banner of IS, which began to control wide desert expanses in both Syria and Iraq. The refugee crisis deepened, with the number of displaced people rising to unprecedented levels. Turkey, together with Jordan and Lebanon, bore the brunt.
The constantly shifting battle lines exposed Turkey’s border area with Syria to both IS and separatist terror. In the years that followed, the area saw three military operations by Turkey to stem this.
The Republic of Turkey had traditionally shown no interest in becoming involved in military conflagrations in its immediate vicinity. Moreover, its response to these conflicts had always included a robust component of regional ownership. During the Iran-Iraq war, Turkey acted as mediator between, and liaison for, the two countries through its embassies in Tehran and Baghdad. After the first Gulf War, Turkey established a trilateral consultation mechanism together with Iran and Syria, which helped check and contain the fallout of that war from Iraq’s north. And in 2003, two months before the US attack on Iraq, Turkey pioneered the launch of the “Iraq’s Neighbors Initiative” in Istanbul. In the years that followed, all during the initial phase of AKP’s long rule, this initiative effectively prevented the situation in Iraq from transforming into a regional conflict. It even became the template for international cooperation to enhance Iraq’s stability, as the P-5, the UN, the EU, the Arab League and the OIC joined Iraq and its neighbors in this framework.
But during those turbulent years, Turkey also never hesitated to concurrently fight the terrorist threat that sprang from its neighboring territories that had slipped outside of state control.
Now, as an interim status quo has essentially been established along the border following Turkey’s agreement with the US and Russia, and the Syrian constitutional committee is preparing to discuss the future political structure of the country, it is an appropriate moment to reflect on where those involved find themselves.
Let us begin with Syria. The country is in ruin and the regime is a spent force. Just in the way it prevailed in the civil war, it can only survive with Russia’s, and Iran’s, constant backing. To what extent the Syrian government has been relieved by the departure of millions of its largely Sunni nationals from the country cannot yet be fathomed. But the government also needs to be cautious about those who have stayed behind. The majority is not expected to be in a triumphant mood. Nevertheless, the Syrian government will not be prepared to repatriate its refugees in any large numbers or anytime soon.
Russia seems to be the primary winner. It does not simply influence Syria. In a way, it now owns the place. But that may prove to be too heavy a burden for its capacity, primarily in economic terms. Russia could make a decisive difference with its military tactics, hardware and technology, together with the Iranians and Hezbollah fighters on the ground. Military assets are of no great value in peacetime domestic arrangements, however. Still, its domineering presence in Syria will be highly significant. This advantage will serve Russia well as it expands influence in the region. In a peculiar way, Russia’s curtailed global reach at the end of the bipolar era has served it well. With China countering the US politically and militarily from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, and economically and technologically on a global scale, Russia could confidently focus on its “near-abroad” and the Middle East, exacting results mostly on its own terms. Russia benefits from the global card that China has and that it does not (except for its nuclear capability), and plays its somewhat weak hand skillfully at little cost.
Iran has consolidated its status in the region. The Syrian regime is still in place and more indebted to Iran than ever before. Together with its political and military holdings from Iraq to Lebanon to Yemen, its regional footprint now looks more complete. But its exposure has grown alongside these advances. Iran’s too-conspicuous presence in the country may prove to be more of a liability than a strategic advantage. Israel — and the United States — will see to that. Iran’s long history is replete with cases of overstretch that turned sour. Russia will have a delicate balancing role to play.
In the longer run, though, Iran’s sectarian appeal and reach in the region and Russia’s custodianship of regimes like the one in Syria may not be sufficient. Until now, working on the Sunni-Shiite divide functioned well in blunting the original thrust of the uprisings. Yet the underlying social and economic factors which led to those uprisings haven’t gone anywhere. In fact, the region may already be moving into a new phase where common resentment against corrupt and unaccountable governments will progressively override confessional and ethnic fault lines.
Western European powers, or the EU for that matter, will find only limited roles for themselves under the post-Syria war terms dictated by others. They will have little influence in the reconciliation and are not expected to substantially underwrite the country’s rebuilding.
The United States had long limited its objectives in Syria to defeating IS and checking Iran’s presence, especially in connection with Israel’s security. The disagreement that occasionally surfaced between President Trump and his team or state institutions was basically over the extent and duration of the ongoing missions within this framework. The scope of US involvement in the Syria crisis, or generally in relation to the regional upheavals since 2011, fits into the broader pattern of its “Asian pivot.” There is no appetite for fuller involvement in the region, militarily or otherwise, particularly after the Iraq experiment, nor does global geopolitics allow Washington to overemphasize Syria on its map.
In Turkey, the leadership had started with high expectations. Surfing on the regional tide they thought would deliver their preferred kind of result in Syria as well, they were convinced that Assad was destined to go and worked toward that aim. For them, change was taking place in the wider framework of the “closure of the century-long parenthesis,” meaning the end of the regional status quo that took shape following World War I. They took it to heart because for them, Turkey’s clear break with Ottoman statehood also fell into the same parentheses. They consequently thought that their regional leadership in the dawning era was preordained, and the times when external imperial powers could dictate their terms to the region would soon be over.
Fast forward to 2019. Clearly, there was no bracket to open or close. Moreover, the AKP leadership’s regional ambitions regressed to Turkey’s own border, literally. The objective after an almost nine-year brush with the Arab upheaval has hence been reformulated. Now, it is to secure national borders against terrorist threats, a totally legitimate position for any nation at any time.
A word about “Operation Peace Spring”: Turkey’s previous two cross-border operations were launched when the international coalition, which includes Turkey, was still waging its fight to defeat IS. This time around, as that objective has for the most part been achieved, the coalition partners felt less bound to take Turkey’s sensitivities into account, and their reactions grew harsher. They thought that targeting YPG would undermine efforts to keep the remainder of IS under check or even result in its resurgence, a nightmare for Europe especially. Moreover, in the process, the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), the bulk of which is constituted by the Kurdish YPG, became a highly regarded group in the West not only for its effective role in defeating IS on the ground, but also for its image as a modern, secular force with fellow female fighters. This was viewed as rare welcome news from a region now characterized by doom and gloom under dictators and jihadists.
The undeniable organic ties between the terrorist PKK and the YPG gave legitimate cause for Turkey to act. However, the context in which this threat was to be dealt with probably required more than operational preparation. Unlike the conditions in Turkey or in Iraq’s north, where the PKK maintains its presence largely in isolation from the population it claims to fight for, in Syria the YPG is de facto responsible for security and order in the towns and settlements under its control. Whether the populace there, Kurds or others, are comfortable with this is another matter. But, at least, many see the YPG as a fellow Kurdish element. And, for an area that has previously lived under the repressive control of the regime only to be replaced for several years by IS terror, YPG control came as a relative respite. So, the military operation against the PKK/YPG presence, with the “Syrian National Army” assuming the pitched battles, was viewed by many inhabitants and the outside public in a different light. Image projection and hence public diplomacy remain essential components of any major undertaking.
Now that Turkey has established a safe buffer along its border through its operation and agreements with the US and Russia, and the Syrian government is in the process of reclaiming control of its northern territories, questions are being raised as to whether a similar outcome could not be exacted by more varied means prioritizing diplomacy, including direct contact with the Syrian government. And, there is no merit in still arguing whether the Turkey-US and Turkey-Russia border area agreements are a success or something less than that. This is because the arrangements stipulated therein are provisional in nature — provisional because they are not binding for the Syrian government. Sooner or later, Turkey and Syria will have to get down to business to ensure the security of their common border.
Finally, a word on oil, which helped shape the region’s geopolitics for more than a century. Syria is not in the forefront of the region’s oil and gas supply. The oil fields in Syria’s east are only relatively significant for the region’s crude oil production. Also, Syria’s natural gas output could only meet domestic demand, and the country was a net importer of gas until 2011. Syria is more significant for its strategic location in relation to regional integration in the energy sector as well as for prospective transit pipelines. However, unlike what the preachers of conspiracy theories are enamored to believe, the war in Syria did not erupt because of oil. Furthermore, the regional players and major powers have been and are still so preoccupied with the multiple challenges to their security in and from the region that stories about these powers charting future energy supply corridors benefitting one or another group, going by their current conduct, sounds like a pipe dream now. U.S. President Trump’s recent remarks to the effect that the Syrian oil fields should remain under Kurdish militia control with U.S. backing are hardly a declaration betraying a bigger scheme to keep regional fossil resources under friendly control. It is instead more of an assertion of continued U.S. presence in Syria in preparation for the upcoming bargain that will shape the country’s new status quo. The U.S. has little else left to claim on the ground.
The Syrian crisis is in the gradual process of receding to its national proportions. This, in itself, should be welcome. This re-nationalization of sorts will make the crisis more manageable. But it will also allow us all to look at the region without the prism of the events in Syria. 2011 marked the beginning of a lengthy yet irreversible process of change across the Arab world towards representative, accountable governance and democratization. Transformation in Tunisia, where the old establishment and the ideological monopolists of another sort were shown their limits in distorting the democratic agenda, should not be expected to remain as an exception. Urban Arabs elsewhere, with bigger numbers, are poised to do the same. Sheer force can do as much as we have already witnessed. Winning against and not winning their own people also shows the rulers’ utmost limits of power. The rounds in the future will be different. This is not wishful thinking. The Arab streets are again on the move, as the swelling crowds from Baghdad to Beirut and from Cairo to Algiers demonstrate. Not surprisingly, until now we have seen the “state security” pitted against the people’s calls for accountability and freedom. The process will have reached its successful conclusion when state security and citizenship entitlement become synonymous.
This dynamic process will influence the geopolitics of this vital region in the years to come. The forces of democracy will do well if they acknowledge this process for what it is. Turkish society, against all odds, will remain part and parcel of these forces.
Şafak Göktürk is a retired Turkish diplomat and is 62 years old. During his career (1979-2019), he held numerous positions including those of First Secretary in Athens, Deputy Chief of Mission in Tehran, Consul General in Frankfurt, Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Deputy Director General for the Middle East, Director General for Policy Planning and Ambassador to Egypt, Singapore and Norway. He is married with two children and lives in Ankara.