Turkey’s key role in the Middle East (Interview)

Interview with Washington DC based Turkish analyst, contributor of “Foreign Policy” magazine and Director of “Sidar Global Advisors” company Cenk Sidar.

1.     What is your general opinion about the Arab Spring and how it has changed the geopolitical situation in the Middle East?

The Arab revolutions have shifted the fault lines in the region. If we focus on the fight for democracy that these societies undertook to topple their authoritarian regimes, it is surely a positive development. However, the final product is uncertain; after sweeping away their dictators, these countries face potential chaos. In short, it is too early to make a final judgment. But given the current landscape, it is difficult to be optimistic and expect a full transition into democracy in the region. The overall situation in Yemen, Libya and Egypt does not seem bright. The rapid expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood regionally has created new risks and setbacks for stability. I am afraid that the secular segments of Arab societies will be politically alienated and possibly victimized. Also, if a new wave of uprisings were to lead to regime changes in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the US and other Western allies of these countries could face some serious dilemmas. And the increasing sectarian conflict within and between countries could turn the Arab revolution into an Arab tragedy.

2.     Today, Turkey and its Western partners are supporting the forces fighting against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In your judgment, will this help Turkey to become a regional power?

Turkey already has been a regional power for decades. The important question in this matter is the nature and intent of its power. Fueling the civil war and ignoring the potential for a peaceful resolution would put Turkey on the wrong side of history. Instead, it must utilize its leverage to end the Syrian conflict through diplomatic means. The removal of Assad must not be the final goal; rather, the ultimate objective must be the establishment of a legitimate, democratic and secular regime to replace him. This will only be possible through negotiations that involve all parties. Injecting troops onto an already chaotic battlefield will only increase the bloodshed. If Turkey could achieve a negotiated peace in Syria, then we could call it a just and wise power in the region.

3.     What is your view on Russia-Turkey relations amid the Syrian crisis?

So far, Moscow and Ankara have done a good job compartmentalizing issues, and not letting anything disrupt the economic relations between the two countries. This shows the pragmatic nature of both the Putin and Erdogan governments. I believe Turkey could do a better job in pushing Russia toward negotiations on Syria, and use its energy-buying leverage to encourage Moscow to accept a resolution of the crisis that does not include Assad. If we look at the current trends, I don’t see any risk of crisis in bilateral relations. Both countries will continue to pursue their own goals and objectives and continue pragmatic cooperation on trade and energy issues. It should be noted, though, that the Turkish government’s practical take on this relationship conflicts with the so-called idealist nature of the Davutoglu foreign policy.

4.     When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Ankara, some media speculated that he and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had found a new solution to the Syrian crisis. What is your view on this episode?

The excitement over a potential agreement lasted only a few days, until everyone realized there was nothing mutually agreed between two capitals in regard to Syria or the future of the Assad regime. The major differences on both sides remain. Russia’s position for the moment remains firm: In order to negotiate a peaceful solution, or simply a ceasefire, Assad himself or someone in his place must be allowed to represent the government that has ruled the country for decades. To Russia, the worst-case scenario would be one like that of Libya, when an existing dictator is ousted by a diverse opposition armed by the West, but a protracted civil war ensues and a power vacuum is created with the potential to destabilize the greater region. All this said, I do believe the leverage the two governments hold on each side of the conflict—Moscow over the Assad regime and Ankara over the opposition—could be used for a diplomatic solution.

5.     Do you agree with the point that the Baath Party will keep its authority in Syria?

With 60,000 of his own people now dead in the conflict, Assad does not have any legitimacy in the country and should not have any role in the future of Syria.  However, this objective must be accomplished through the will of Syrian society and international consensus. If Syrians want the Baath Party to represent a small segment of their society, that should not be prevented.

6.      Assad, in an interview with Russia Today, accused Turkey of implementing a “New Ottoman” foreign policy. In your judgment, he is right?

The proactive policies of Turkey should not be seen as emerging signs of imperialism on its part. Turkey must work as a regional power to create stability in the region, but shall only use diplomatic tools, and its soft power in this process. Directly taking a side in the military conflict and assisting various suspicious groups would draw Turkey further into a sectarian mess. Also, it is important to note that in its day, the Ottoman Empire did not interfere with the internal affairs of countries under its rule, and never played the sectarian card. This accusation is a bit unfair.

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