Interview with Sinem Cengiz

Sinem Cengiz (photo from personal archive)
Sinem Cengiz (photo from personal archive)

Sinem Cengiz is one of the most  well-known young experts of Turkey. She is currently serving as a “Diplomacy correspondent” of the biggest political magazine “Todays Zaman”. Sinem is continuing to her researches on Middle Eastern countries and Turkish foreign policy towards region. 

1-Western and some Turkish mainstream media claim that the terrorists control 40% to 70% of Syrian territory; what is the reality?

Needless to say, when a state structure collapses, terrorist groups become stronger, deepening their influence in the war-torn country. Syria is running out of time to turn into a failed state – this is a situation which gives opportunity for the terrorists group to find a fertile ground in the country. As the conflict in Syria prolongs and as embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, with backing from Iran and Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah, have made gains on the Syrian battlefield, al-Qaeda and other groups, which were not key players in Syria initially, have started to deepen their influence in the country. Now these groups, which pose a serious threat to the entire region, have started to play an increasingly prominent role amid the power vacuum, aiming to transform Syria into a proxy battlefield. As you can remember, some key cities have been captured by the radical groups in Syria and also in the past months, Taliban declared that it joined the opposition ranks as part of a strategy to cement ties with the al-Qaeda leadership. As it is not a secret today the war in Syria eliminated the moderate Syrian opposition fighters and played into hands of these groups, which now, truly control some portion (%40) of the Syrian territory.

2- Why Syria became a victim of Western community and the internal struggle of Islamists?

Syria is a strategic gateway to the Arab world and an important state not only for the regional actors but also the global actors. Syria, when compared to other states in the region, didn’t have a strong economy or a military but it was able to play an important role in affecting the balance in the region. Today, Iran is supporting its strategic ally and struggling at all costs to ensure the survival of the Syrian regime, aware that it is a necessary tool in connecting with a valuable ally in Lebanon, namely the Shiite group Hezbollah. Russia, along with Iran, throws its both political and military support behind the regime for its own interests. Russians do not want the change of regime in Syria coming from outside pressure, particularly from the US and its allies. Russia is a long-time arms supplier to Damascus and maintains a naval facility in Syria. Giving up Syria will not be very easy for the Russians. Actually the vetoes of Russia and China in the UN Security Council (UNSC) played into the hands of Western powers, particularly the US, who is unwilling to take any action in war-torn Syria. Due the different interest calculations of several actors on Syria, today, Syria has become a war-zone, eventually the victim of international community.

 

3- How you could rate a foreign policy strategy of Erdogan’s administration towards the Syrian conflict? Are you agreeing with claims up of President Bashar al – Assad about interference of Turkey to internal conflict of an independent country?

More than two years old Syrian conflict has become a tough ordeal not only for Turkey but also for many countries. Indeed, as being the closest neighbor, Turkey is among the most affected countries by the Syrian conflict. It is hosting more than 600.000 refuges that had fled from the war-torn country and is facing the both social and economic burden of these refugees. Needless to say, Turkey was not expecting the war to prolong this much. Turkey thought Syrian regime would topple like the ones toppled in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. It failed to calculate the dynamics in the country as well as the interest of the regional and the global actors. At first, there was nothing wrong in Turkey’s stance calling the regime to listen the voice of its people and also condemning the regime for using force against its people. Unlike other actors, which are following much more delicate and cautious policies in Syria, Turkey took a one-sided policy which narrowed its room for maneuver. Today, Turkey is accused of supporting radical groups in Syria; it has become the target of pro-Assad groups and has become the victim of its own Syria policy. Now more aware that the international community would never intervene to Syria, Turkey seems to revise its policy towards Syria.

 

4-Upcoming “Geneva talks – 2”, what will give the second part of conference to Turkey, amid the violence in the border of country?

The violence on the Turkish-Syrian border has not only rung alarm bells in Ankara but also brought into question Ankara’s Syria policy. Ankara’s Syria policy received harsh criticism from several circles in Turkey as the security risks along its border with the war-torn country continued to grow.

Amid this situation, it is still not clear for me whether the Geneva II conference, which aims to bring together the members of the Syrian regime and the opposition, will take place or not. It was not taken place until now due to the balance of power on the ground. Assad wants to sit on the table with having the upper hand while the countries against Assad want the opposition to gain more ground in Syria prior to conference. In this sense, it is hard to comment on what the Geneva II would give to Turkey.

5- What is Turkey’s main plan to easing the violence against civil people?

Turkey has always urged the international community to take all sorts of measures to provide security of civilians in Syria. Several roadmaps were brought into agenda such as creating buffer zone to protect these people. However, the burden should not be solely on the shoulders of Turkey. International community should take an action to protect these civilians.

6- Since September of current year, the US Congress named a data of rocket strikes to Syria in retaliation to Assad’s chemical weapon policy. In your judgment, is Syrian Baath regime able to use chemical weapon in this stage of conflict?

This was a long debated issue actually. The regime and opposition accused each other of using chemical weapons in Syria that killed more than 1,000 and injured many more. Some argue that the regime would not dare use chemical weapons as this would be a direct reason for a possible intervention into war-torn Syria. Or in other words Assad would not be that stupid to make such a tragic mistake, which would be a deadly blow to its existence. As you remember, US had announced any use of chemical weapons as its red line in Syria and that it would trigger a military intervention. Saleh Muslim, head of Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), said also:”The regime in Syria … has chemical weapons, but they wouldn’t use them around Damascus, 5 kilometers from the [UN] committee which is investigating chemical weapons. Of course they are not so stupid as to do so.” So, this is a complicated issue.