By Jeremy Salt
The next time Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks to the media perhaps he should be asked precisely where the Turkish national interest lies in the destruction of Syria.
In the name of bringing down the government in Damascus, Syria is being torn to pieces by groups armed, trained and financed by foreign governments. There is no real distinction between any of them. Jabhat al Nusra – Al Qaida in Syria – has the same ideological roots as the so-called Islamic State and is just as bloodthirsty and vicious. The so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a collection of freebooters sucking up money and weapons from outside and crossing over to Jabhat al Nusra or the Islamic State or other groups with their weapons when it suits them. Jaish al Fatah (Army of Conquest) is a collective of takfiri groups that includes Jabhat al Nusra but alliances are fluid and subject to change. Sooner rather than later these groups could be expected to merge with the Islamic State, turning the central lands of the Middle East into one of the cruelest states the world has ever known.
The role played by Turkey in supporting this massive assault on a neighboring country is pivotal. The story begins with Libya. After hesitating, and declaring that outside military intervention anywhere in the Middle East would be disastrous, Recep Tayyip Erdogan threw his support behind the attack on Libya by the US, Britain and France. How support by an avowedly Muslim government for an attack on another Muslim country by western states squares with Islamic law and conventions is something for the scholars to explain. The overthrow of the Libyan government seems to have convinced Mr Erdogan and his then Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu that ‘reform’ was the wave of the future and they had better ride it: even better, position themselves on the crest of the wave towards the end of taking the lead in shaping the ‘new’ Middle East.
The next target on the agenda of the US-led collective which destroyed Libya was Syria. In 2012 Mr Erdogan and Mr Davutoglu positioned themselves at the forefront of the attack on the Syrian government, claiming that President Bashar al Assad had refused to listen to their pleas that he introduce ‘reforms.’ In fact, what they wanted, according to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallim, was to bring the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned organization, into the ranks of government. Having failed to bring Bashar around to their way of thinking, Mr Erdogan and Mr Davutoglu decided to back the Syrian National Council (SNC) and its armed extension, the FSA. The SNC, a group of exiles with no known support in Syria, was provided with money and offices in Istanbul and the FSA with a base of operations in the southeast.
All doors were opened to the attack. Thousands of foreign takfiris streamed into Syria through Turkey while hundreds of thousands of Syrians trying to escape the fighting streamed into Turkey. Their numbers have now swelled to about 1.7 million, of whom about 300,000 live in refugee camps while the rest fend for themselves as best as they can in the southeast and across the country, begging in the streets, sleeping rough and being exploited as cheap labor. The camps are also host to Syrian takfiris, crossing the border during the past four years to fight and returning to the relative comforts of accommodation, food and heating provided by domestic and international aid agencies.
Apaydin is a ‘refugee’ camp only in name as it was set up solely for the senior figures in FSA. The attacks inside Syria directed by the FSA leadership inside Turkey include the assassination of senior figures in government offices in Damascus, with responsibility being claimed by the then head of the FSA, Riad al Assad, speaking from his base in Turkey.
In May 2014, bands of takfiris crossed the border to attack the Syrian Armenian town of Kassab. The people were driven out and their churches desecrated before the Syrian army drove them back across the border. While attacking takfiri positions a Syrian fighter jet was brought down by a Turkish missile attack. Turkey claims the jet crossed into Turkish air space but the fact is the pilot ejected and landed seven kilometers on the other side of the Syrian border. Like so much else about this war, the conflicting versions were not reconciled and soon fell out of the headlines.
Kassab was a minor public relations disaster for the Turkish government because of the connection immediately made around the world with the fate of the Armenians in 1915 but in no way did it persuade Mr Erdogan and Mr Davutoglu to back off after all the destruction and seek a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria. Turkey is now said to have been closely involved in the recent takfiri seizure of the city of Idlib and the town of Jisr al Shughur, a hotbed of religious reaction for decades. In its complaint to the UN Security Council, the Syrian government alleges that the attack on the town was launched with intelligence support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and says the takfiris were provided with weapons and training by Turkey. Thousands of men, many of them not ‘rebels’ at all but foreign fighters, including Chechens and Saudis, were involved in these attacks. The capture of Jisr al Shughur, in particular, was marked by trademark massacres in the town and nearby villages.
The loss of life and destruction in Syria has been immense but Mr Erdogan and Mr Dauvutoglu are clearly just as committed to the destruction of the government in Damascus as they were four years ago. They made continuation of their war against Bashar al Assad a condition of their participation in the campaign against the Islamic State. This campaign – such as it is – remains ambiguous and deeply suspect. Turkey is now training ‘moderates’ for the fight against the Islamic State: whether these armed men will actually serve this purpose once they cross the border remains to be seen. In any event there are no ‘moderates’ in Syria for them to join. The dominant fighting groups are all takfiri. The role played by the FSA is completely peripheral and to have any hope of changing the balance of power in favor of their notional ‘moderates’ the US and its allies would have train tens of thousands of men and not just a few thousand. Documents tabled in a Turkish court indicate that the Turkish national intelligence agency MIT has delivered truckloads of ammunition and weapons parts to areas of northern Syria under the control of one or another of these groups. This well-documented evidence has been dismissed out of hand by the Turkish government but reports continue of weapons material being shipped across the border into territory controlled by the Islamic State as well as other groups.
The US treats the Islamic State like an attack dog, restrained in Iraq where its interests (protection of the Kurdish state and its oil wealth) are threatened but let off the leash in western Iraq and Syria. The US did nothing to prevent the capture of Mosul last year and stood by again when the takfiris captured Ramadi recently and paraded through the streets in more captured US army pickups. Neither did it take any action to stop IS takfiris as they streamed across the desert in the direction of Palmyra. In both cases the takfiri columns were an open target which could have been obliterated from the air yet nothing was done to stop them.
A recently declassified Defence Intelligence Agency document exposes the truth. Dated August 2012, it points to the possibility of a ‘salafist principality’ being established in eastern Syria ‘and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).’ In other words the establishment of a takfiri state straddling the Iraqi and Syrian borders is part of US strategy, aimed at breaking up Iraq into a Kurdish state in the north, a takfiri state in the west and a rump Shia state in the south. Syria is intended to go the same way if the Alawi minority survives the takfiri attempt to destroy them.
No surprise here that this strategy is entirely consistent with the long-standing Zionist objective of breaking up the central lands of the Middle East into squabbling ethno-religious mini-states permanently in conflict with each other. Israel is right inside this war. It has signaled its preference for a takfiri regime in Damascus instead of the present government and has been giving the takfiris battlefield assistance and medical aid. Ehud Barak once fatuously described Israel as a villa in the jungle. In fact, Israel has spent 70 years doing its best to turn the Middle East into a jungle so that it can survive while everything around it dies. What we are witnessing is the complete reshaping of the Middle East in US, Israeli and Saudi interests.
The setbacks suffered by the Syrian army near the Turkish border appear linked to reports of closer collaboration between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey aimed at blunting the advances of the Syrian army. Aleppo – those quarters infiltrated by the takfiris, including Chechens – seemed close to liberation until more forceful intervention by Syria’s regional enemies. In Tadmur – the town next to the Palmyra ruins – hundreds of people were massacred as the takfiris took over.
It is not hard to understand why Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US want the Syrian government destroyed but it is very hard to understand how the destruction of the Syrian government and effectively of much of Syria – the destruction of human life, the destruction of cities, towns and villages and the destruction of Syria as a functioning state – ever suited anything that could be described as a Turkish national interest, whatever Mr Erdogan and Mr Davutoglu thought they were doing when they launched their campaign against Syria in 2012. Their apparent dream of a Middle East dominated by a neo-Ottoman Turkish republic has collapsed in the ruins of Iraq and Syria and the emergence of an Islamic State that threatens the stability of all regimes in the region.
The negatives can be ticked off one by one. Last year the border town of Reyhanli was bombed by the same people or the same type of people the government is now supporting in Syria, with great loss of life and destruction. Turkey has had to bear a large part of the cost of maintaining the flood of Syrian refugees. It has an expanding, brutal and extremely violent Islamic state just across its border. Cross-border trade has been killed off and relations damaged with worthwhile friends (Iraq, Iran and Russia) for the sake of relations with questionable ones (Saudi Arabia and Qatar). Border security has been wrecked and an even greater regional crisis could easily develop given Syria’s strategic importance to Russia and Iran. Yet Mr Erdogan and Mr Davutoglu appear to want plunge in even deeper, following reports of friction with the army command over their reported wish for an open attack across the border towards direct and open involvement in Syria.
This war is unprecedented in Turkey’s history. Never before has a Turkish government set out to destroy the government in a neighboring country, using means that would seem to put it in violation of international law. Article 2 (1) of the UN Charter stipulates that ‘all member states shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered.’ Article 2 (4) requires all UN members to refrain ‘from the threat or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state or in any manner inconsistent with this purpose.’ In 1965 the UN General Assembly passed in resolution 2131 (XX) the Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of their Independence and Sovereignty. The text contains the following clauses:
1) No state has the right to intervene directly or indirectly for any reason whatever in the internal or external affairs of any state. Consequently armed intervention and all other forms of interference or attempted threats against the personality of the state or against its political, economic and cultural elements are condemned.
2) No state may urge or encourage the use of economic, political or any other types of measures in order to coerce another state in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights or to secure from it advantages of any kind. Also, no state shall organize, assist or foment, finance or tolerate subversive, terrorist or armed activities directed towards the violent overthrow of the regime of another state or engender civil strife in another state.
While new concepts have arisen since that time – especially ‘responsibility to protect’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’ – direct or indirect intervention in the affairs of other states without the authority of the UN does not have authoritative legal support. This remains the case even with the US-led intervention in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. One can also mention the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Training and Financing of Mercenaries, into which category would have to be put the armed men being trained with the support of the US in Jordan and Turkey. The fact that other states violate international law does not free Turkey from the responsibility of upholding it at every level.
Syria is a man-made catastrophe. Mr Erdogan and Mr Davutoglu had a range of choices before them. They could have chosen to hold Bashar al Assad to his word and make sure that free elections within a multiparty system were held (as they were eventually were anyway). They could have chosen to remain in the role of neutral but concerned arbitrators. They could even have chosen to do nothing but instead of picking up any of these options they chose violence behind the screen of support for ‘rebels.’ Their companions in the anti-Syrian collective include two of the most reactionary and undemocratic governments in the world, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This is Mr Erdogan’s ‘new Turkey.’
This is a wrong war morally, legally and politically. It is a dirty war whose full dimensions remain mostly hidden despite everything that is known about it. It is the most relentless and vicious war waged against an Arab government in the past two centuries. The destruction of Syria has paved the way for the rise of some of the most chillingly brutal people in modern history. There is no perceptible Turkish national interest in this war unless serving the interests of the US, Israel and backwards Gulf States (with lots of money) can be described as a national interest. It is not the war of the Turkish people but the war of two men against one man. This is a war driven by ego, ambition and the macho determination of Tayyip Erdogan to destroy Bashar al Assad. Napoleon dreamt of riding an elephant into Central Asia, a turban on his head and an emerald in the turban. Of what does Tayyip Erdogan dream? Walking into the Umayyad mosque in Damascus to the cheers of the multitudes? If ever he does, behind him will lie the wreckage of Syria and the scattering to the four winds of Ataturk’s slogan – ‘peace at home and peace in the world.’
– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.