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The Case for Normalization with Syria

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Throughout the last few years, many Arab states have taken steps towards normalizing relations with Syria. The United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy there in 2018 and important regional U.S. partners like Egypt and Jordan are trading with Damascus again. Meanwhile, the Biden administration adopted a wait-and-see policy, neither pushing nor blocking these contacts. Indeed, now that the forces for democratization lost the Syrian civil war (started in 2011) to Bashar al-Assad and his authoritarian regime, it appears sensible to the United States and other Western states to re-establish relations with Syria and end the sanctions that are hurting the Syrian people without much hope of turning the country into a liberal democracy. As Adam Lammon reports, “economic conditions have become so dire—83 percent of Syrians are living below the poverty line; 60 percent risk going hungry due to soaring food prices; and fuel for heating, cooking, and transportation is scarce—that U.S. policy is indisputably killing Syrians.”

Yet, some in the rear guard still seem to believe that more of the sanctions could decide al-Assad to throw in the towel and turn Syria into a democracy. Realistically, the West can now do little to oust al-Assad short of direct military action, and even this is far from sure to transform Syria into a working democratic state — one remembers the Afghan debacle. Instead of sanctions as usual, a sounder policy of restoring normal relations with Syria could further four major interests at little cost.

First, normalizing relations with Damascus would decrease Iran’s sway over Syria and the Middle East at large. In the same way that the 2003 Iraq War allowed Iran to increase its influence in Baghdad and beyond, the Syrian civil war weakened the Syrian state and, combined with Western sanctions, pushed it to rely on Iran for finance and military support. Iran is now relatively free to move troops and weapons throughout Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Iranian militias operate actively on Syrian territory and are often bombed by the wary Israelis.

If the United States and other major Western states re-establish economic links with Syria, Damascus would become less dependent on Tehran for its finances and, ultimately, its military survival. Having relieved the international pressure on Damascus’s shoulders, Western states could then encourage the Syrians to limit their relations with Iran to the bare minimum. Specifically, the United States can use its residual presence in the al-Tanf region and Kurdistan as bargaining chips to extract concessions. This move would reduce the Iranian clout throughout the Middle East, increase Israel’s security, and decrease the risk for inadvertent escalation between Jerusalem and Tehran. It could also weaken Iran’s hand in the nuclear conundrum and push it towards accommodation.

Second, working with Damascus would loosen Russia’s grip over Syria. Because Western states and chiefly the United States have no relations with Syria and put it under extensive sanctions, Syria’s patron by default is Russia. The Syrians have little choice other than to follow Moscow’s will. The goal here is not to get Russia out of Syria; Russian presence in Syria is well-entrenched and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Also, al-Assad will keep relying on Russian weapons to rebuild its military.

Nevertheless, by reopening relations with Syria, the West will provide Damascus with leverage and bargaining power in its dealings with Russia. Because the Syrians would become able to play the Western countries against Russia, it would allow them to maneuver and, sometimes, say no to the Russians. Syria would remain under Russian influence but have more breathing space to avoid turning into a mere satellite.

Third, the West needs a functioning Syrian state to counterbalance Turkey’s expansionism. Syria long had rocky relations with its northern neighbor; it has claims over the Turkish province of Hatay and a history of supporting Kurdish independentists across the border. The Turks probably also worry about the increased Iranian and Russian military presence on their southern borders and want their slice of the Syrian cake. When the Syrian government’s authority collapsed in the civil war, the Turks took the occasion to occupy Syrian lands and strike the Syrian Kurds. Ankara now exerts control over pieces of northern Syria and is actively Turkifying them.

On one side, the West has little interest in letting Turkey expand in all directions and overthrow the balance of power in the region. However, it also needs to keep Turkey on its side, so it does not align with China or Russia. One way to stop Turkish expansionism while avoiding a collision with Ankara is by repairing the relations with Syria. By letting Syria’s economy come back to a normal footing and the Syrian state rebuild itself, Damascus could acquire the staying power to resist Turkish ambitions and, over the long run, get the Turks out of its territory. 

Finally, normalizing Syria’s economic situation would help limit the exodus of refugees. Indeed, the cruel civil war combined with economic collapse pushed scores of refugees on the roads. Over one million of them headed towards Europe. This afflux generated tensions within and among European states and fueled political cleavages between pro and anti-refugees. In that tense atmosphere, European states have had less energy to focus on the challenge from Russia. By loosening the sanctions on Syria and letting the country’s economy run normally, fewer people would be tempted to emigrate; this would alleviate political tensions in Western Europe, which would be freer to tackle the challenge of defending Eastern Europe against a resurgent Russia.  

The United States and other Western states had good intentions when they tried to push Syria towards liberal democracy. But now that this endeavor failed, sanctioning Syria and isolating the regime harms the Syrian people for no apparent gain. Meanwhile, this isolation opens the door for outside powers to gain footholds on Syrian territory and leaves Damascus reliant on Iran and Russia for survival. Although a policy of overture and de-sanctioning towards Damascus may not bear all its fruits immediately, it would help a great deal to rebalance Middle Eastern politics by giving Syria, one of the most important regional states, the means to maintain its independence and sovereignty against ambitious neighbors and faraway great powers.

Dylan Motin is a visiting research fellow at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies of Kyungnam University.

Middle East

Israel admits involvement in the killing of an Iranian army officer

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Image credit: MEHR News Agency

Col. Sayad Khodayee, 50, was fatally shot outside his home in Tehran on Sunday when two gunmen on motorcycles approached his car and fired five bullets into it, according to state media. Iran has blamed Israel for the killing, which bore the hallmarks of other Israeli targeted killings of Iranians in a shadow war that has been playing out for years on land, sea, air, and cyberspace.

Although a spokeswoman for the Israeli prime minister declined to comment on the killing. But according to an intelligence official briefed on the communications, Israel has informed American officials that it was behind the killing.

At the funeral in Tehran for a colonel in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, thousands of mourners packed the streets around the cemetery chanting “Death to Israel” and calling for revenge for his killing.

“We will make the enemy regret this and none of the enemy’s evil actions will go unanswered,” Gen. Hossein Salami, the commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards, said in a speech on Monday. A member of Iran’s National Security Council, Majid Mirahmadi, said the killing was “definitely the work of Israel,” and warned that harsh revenge would follow, according to Iranian media.

The United States has designated the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group unilaterally — a decision that has been a sticking point in the negotiations with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has demanded that the designation be removed as a condition for restoring the deal, but the United States has refused, leaving the negotiations frozen. The Nuclear deal was terminated by President Trump, but President Joe Bidden wanted to resume the deal and is in communication with Iran for restoration. Definitely, Iran had bitter experiences and concerns about the sincerity of Washington. It wanted safeguards and certain guarantees. Iran is willing to such a nuclear deal, which protects the interest of both sides, any unilateral deal may not be accepted by Tehran.

Israel is openly opposed to the nuclear deal. In fact, President Trump, after meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, took the unpopular decision of terminating the deal unilaterally. Some Iranian analysts close to the government said the attack was aimed at derailing the nuclear talks at a delicate point and undermining any possibility that Iran and the United States might reach a consensus over the issue of the Guards.

However, the Israelis told the Americans the killing was meant as a warning to Iran to halt the operations of a covert group within the Quds Force known as Unit 840, according to the intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information. Whereas, Iran has portrayed the colonel as a martyred hero who joined the Revolutionary Guards as a teenager, volunteered as a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war, and went on to play a prominent role in the Quds force fighting the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria. The people of Iran are proud of his contributions.

What so ever is the justification presented by Israel, is a clear violation of international laws and practices. It has violated the UN charter and all norms of the civilized world. It might bear consequences, and Iran’s warning to retaliate is legitimate as a victim has not been provided justice yet. The aggressor needs to be taught a bitter lesson to avoid any future misadventure.

It has created new tension in the region and many speculations are roaming in the middle-east. Iran is a sovereign state and has the legitimate right to protect its safety, security, and vital interests. Iran has the capability to react, but, the visionary leadership in Tehran, might be waiting for an appropriate time, and opportunity. Iran does not want to escalate further and trying to minimize the existing tension, while committed to safeguarding its sovereignty and interests.

As matter of fact, Israel is the root cause of all problems in the Middle East and since its inception is over-engaged creating problems one after another. It is a defaulter of the UN and denied the implementation of several resolutions passed by the UNSC. It strongly urged that the UN and the International community must keep eye on Israeli activities and atrocities that are spoiling the peace and security of the whole region.

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Middle East

Playing games in NATO, Turkey eyes its role in a new world order

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erdogan

NATO’s spat over Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish membership is about more than expanding the North Atlantic military alliance. It’s as much about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s immediate political goals as Turkey’s positioning itself in a new 21st-century world order.

On its surface, the spat is about Turkish efforts to hinder support for Kurdish ethnic, cultural, and national aspirations in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq and a crackdown on alleged supporters of a preacher who lives in exile in the United States. Turkey accuses the preacher, Fethullah Gulen, of instigating a failed military coup in 2016.

The spat may also be a play by NATO’s second-largest standing military to regain access to US arms sales, particularly upgrades for Turkey’s aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets as well as more advanced newer models of the F-16 and the top-of-the-line F-35.

Finally, playing the Kurdish card benefits Mr. Erdogan domestically, potentially at a time that the Turkish economy is in the doldrums with a 70 per cent inflation rate.

“Erdogan always benefits politically when he takes on the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK) and groups linked to it, like the YPG in Syria… In fact, attacking the PKK and the YPG is a two-for-one. Erdogan is seen to take on genuine terrorists and separatists, and at the same time, he gets to take a swipe at the United States, which taps into the vast reservoir of anti-Americanism in Turkey,” said Middle East scholar Steven A. Cook.

While important issues in and of themselves, they are also likely to influence where Turkey will rank as the world moves towards a bi-polar or multi-polar power structure.

The battle over perceived Scandinavian, and mainly, Swedish support for Kurdish aspirations involves the degree to which the United States and Europe will continue to kick the can down on the road of what constitutes yet another Middle Eastern powder keg.

Mr. Erdogan announced this week that Turkey would soon launch a new military incursion against US-backed Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria. Mr. Erdogan said the operation would extend the Turkish armed forces’ areas of control in Syria to a 30-kilometer swath of land along the two countries’ shared border.

“The main target of these operations will be areas which are centers of attacks to our country and safe zones,” the Turkish president said.

Turkey asserts that the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian militia that helped defeat the Islamic State, is an extension of the PKK. The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey, home to some 16 million Kurds. Turkey, the United States, and the European Union have designated the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

Mr. Erdogan charges that Sweden and Finland give the PKK sanctuary and is demanding that the two countries extradite the group’s operatives. Turkey has not officially released the names of 33 people it wants to see extradited, but some were reported in Turkish media close to the government.

Swedish media reported that a physician allegedly on the list had died seven years ago and was not known to have had links to the PKK. Another person named was not resident in Sweden, while at least one other is a Swedish national.

Swedish and Finnish officials were in Ankara this week to discuss Turkey’s objections. Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson insisted as the officials headed for the Turkish capital that “we do not send money or weapons to terrorist organizations.”

Conveniently, pro-government media reported the day the officials arrived that Turkish forces found Swedish anti-tank weapons in a cave in northern Iraq used by the PKK. Turkey recently launched Operation Claw Lock against PKK positions in the region.

Mr. Erdogan’s military plans complicate Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO. The two Nordic states slapped an arms embargo on Ankara after its initial incursion into Syria in 2019. The Turkish leader has demanded the lifting of the embargo as part of any deal on Swedish and Finnish NATO membership.

A renewed incursion that would cement Turkey’s three-year-old military presence in Syria could also throw a monkey wrench into improving relations with the United States due to Turkish support for Ukraine and efforts to mediate an end to the crisis sparked by the Russian invasion.

Turkey slowed its initial incursion into Syria after then US President Donald J. Trump threatened to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy.

The State Department warned this week that a renewed incursion would “undermine regional stability.”

Revived US arms sales would go a long way to cement improved relations and downplay the significance of Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile system, even if Turkey’s opposition to Scandinavian membership will have a lingering effect on trust. The United States expelled Turkey from its F-35 program in response to the acquisition.

This week, Mr. Erdogan appeared to widen the dispute in NATO after Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis lobbied the US Congress against military sales to Turkey. “Mitsotakis no longer exists for me. I will never agree to meet him,” Mr. Erdogan said. He said that Mr. Mitostakis’ lobbying violated an agreement between the two men “not to involve third countries in our bilateral issues.”

The US arms sales would also impact Turkish Russian relations, even if Turkey, in contrast to most NATO members, will continue seeking to balance its relationships and avoid an open rift with Moscow or Washington.

“Russia’s geopolitical revisionism is set to drive Turkey and the West relatively closer together in matters geopolitical and strategic, provided that Turkey’s current blockage of Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership bid is resolved in the not too distant future,” said Turkey scholar Galip Dalay.

Turkey’s NATO gamble is a game of high-stakes poker, given that Russia is as much a partner of Turkey as it is a threat.

NATO is Turkey’s ultimate shield against Russian civilizationalist expansionism. Russian support in 2008 for irredentist regions of Georgia and annexation of Crimea in 2014 created a buffer between Turkey and Ukraine and complicated arrangements between Turkey and Russia in the Black Sea.

Nevertheless, Mr. Erdogan risks fueling a debate about Turkey’s membership in NATO, much like Prime Minister Victor Orban’s opposition to a European embargo of Russian energy has raised questions about Hungary’s place in the EU.

“Does Erdogan’s Turkey Belong in NATO?” asked former US vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman and Mark D. Wallace, a former senator, in an oped in The Wall Street Journal. Unlike Finland and Sweden, the two men noted that Turkey would not meet NATO’s democracy requirements if it were applying for membership today.

“Turkey is a member of NATO, but under Mr. Erdogan, it no longer subscribes to the values that underpin this great alliance. Article 13 of the NATO charter provides a mechanism for members to withdraw. Perhaps it is time to amend Article 13 to establish a procedure for the expulsion of a member nation,” Messrs. Lieberman and Wallace wrote.

The two men implicitly argued that turning the tables on Turkey would force the complicated NATO member back into line.

Adding to that, prominent Turkish journalist and analyst Cengiz Candar cautioned that “giving into Ankara’s demands amounts to letting an autocrat design the security architecture of Europe and shape the future of the Western system.”

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Middle East

The May 27 Coup: An Attempt to Analyze Politics in Gramscian Terms

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On 27 May in 1960, Turkey witnessed its first full-fledged military coup. The coup was of a non-hierarchical nature in the sense that it was not carried out by generals but by other military officers belonging to lower status such as colonels. What paved the way for the coup can be seen as multi-dimensional. What I will try to do in this piece is not to put forward the reasons why that military intervention occurred or the impact it had upon society and politics in Turkey. My main concern is to analyze Turkish politics in Gramscian terms between the years 1960–1961.

The Democrat Party which was overthrown in 1960 can be viewed as a party which was supported by the masses who are critical of the single-party era. The strict state interpretation of secularism was undermined to some degree during the DP rule and this was welcomed by the masses in Turkey. Moreover, the economic backwardness of the rural areas was undermined to some extent, this development can also be seen as an important source of relief for the masses during that period. However, as Acton states “power corrupts”, the DP in the course of time had adopted some autocratic policies that discomforted the state establishment, most notably the military elites. Moreover, the state establishment thought that the DP had undermined the Kemalist principles especially in terms of challenging the secular character of Turkey.

Apart from political reasons, the structure of the military played a key role in the emergence of the 1960 coup d’état. As known, in 1952, Turkey became a part of the NATO, and this membership made the military personnel become more aware of the economic and technological backwardness of the army. Briefly, it can be said that those years were times of change: the military staff had become much more aware of the armies of other NATO members and as noted above, this paved the way for making them realize how backward they were both in technological and financial terms. On the other hand, there was a significant transformation of the Turkish society as domestic migration to cities was witnessed. Also the victory of the DP rule and then its tendencies towards a more authoritarian line played a central role in destabilizing the country.

What I attempt to do in this piece is to employ three of Gramsci’s terms / conceptualizations in analyzing Turkish politics before and after the 1960’s coup d’état. These concepts are hegemony, organic intellectuals and historical bloc. The term hegemony can simply be defined as the following: A society cannot be ruled through sole coercion and oppression; non-material instruments are needed, such as consent and persuasion, as well. Organic intellectuals can be defined as the intellectuals who are different from conventional intellectuals. Organic intellectuals have a significant role in society, they play a key role in the reproduction of the dominant ideology (hegemonic discourses) and they try to integrate the masses into the dominant ideology.

Historical bloc refers to a particular period of time with a particular type of power configuration shaped both by economic and political factors. The establishment of a historical bloc can be regarded as the end of the ideological dominance of a certain group while being the start of the dominance / ideological hegemony of another group.

First of all, the term ‘hegemony’ can be a good starting point in analyzing Turkish politics just before the military intervention. As noted, societies cannot be ruled by coercion only; there is also a strong need for consent. As known, the policies of the DP after the mid-1950s had begun to have an authoritarian character.

The DP rule chose not to negotiate with the opposing forces in the parliament, by contrast, the DP leaders chose to establish special investigative committees (tahkikat komisyonu) in order to cope with the opposing forces. These committees can be regarded as an instrument of coercion. In addition, freedom of speech had been under threat as the DP rule adopted strict censorship policies. These developments weakened the relative power of consent that was evident in the first years of the DP rule. In other words, it can be stated that, the hegemony of the political elites (the DP) had begun to be questioned right before the coup.

Secondly, the term ‘historical bloc’ can be employed in order to understand what had happened after the coup.As known, the military intervention put an end to the DP rule and party leaders while some other important political figures were sent to trial. Some of them were hanged later on. After the coup, transitional governments were established. These governments can be formulized as follows: Army + Republican People’s Party (RPP) = Political Power. It can be said that, the end of the DP rule can be seen as the end of a certain historical bloc. The historical bloc of the DP rule and its social/electoral basis had collapsed and another historical bloc, that of the RPP and the military came into-being.

Thirdly, a look at the new constitution drafting process will help us while evaluating the role of the ‘organic intellectuals’ in analyzing Turkish politics of that time period. After the coup, the military officers had asked some law professors to make a brand new constitution for Turkey. The nature of the 1961 constitution is not under investigation here, so only the role of the professors will be analyzed. The law professors were of Kemalist ideology and were determined to make a constitution in line with the ideology of the military. It is obvious that the professors played some sort of an organic intellectual role in making the new regime’s ideology dominant in the society. By drafting a new constitution, they aimed at justifying the coup as well as producing the ideology of the new regime. In addition, it can be stated that, the new constitution was seen as a tool for building up the new hegemony after the coup. The new laws paved the way for the diversification of the political arena letting new political actors emerge.

To put it in a nutshell it can be said that the events preceding and following the 1960 coup can be a good case study for applying Gramscian terms/conceptualizations in analyzing Turkish politics.

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