The writer teaches Turkish history at Sabanci University in Istanbul. He holds an MA and PhD in history from the same university.
By Adam McConnel
ISTANBUL (AA) - Developments in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province over the past three weeks will have fundamental effects on the flow of history in the coming months and years. What the al-Assad regime and Russia are trying to accomplish in northwestern Syria has nothing to with “fighting terrorism” – that is only the excuse under which Damascus, with Russian help, is carrying out demographic cleansing. In this case, the aim is not ethnic cleansing but rather sectarian cleansing: they want to expel from Syria as many Sunnis as possible. Turkey, on the other hand, is the sole actor that has consistently defended Syrian citizens’ right to live in peace under a democratic system. The immediate future of democracy in this region is at stake as Russia supports a collection of monarchies and military dictatorships that oppose Turkey’s intervention into the Syrian conflict.
In 2011, before the conflict began, Syria was 70 percent Sunni, but its state had been controlled for decades by the al-Assad family, which comes from Syria’s Alawite (Nusayri) minority. Alawites are understood as a form of Shia identity, and this explains why the Damascus regime and Iran have had such close ties. The Syrian state’s official ideology is Arab Baathism, which is a proto-fascist mix of socialist and nationalist ideas. Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had already carried out large-scale massacres of Sunnis in the 1980s, but the Cold War was still on then so it garnered little international attention.
The spontaneous, popular uprising against the al-Assad regime began in Dera’a, a city in Syria’s southwest near the Jordanian border. The protesters’ aim has always been to force the regime to accept democratic reforms. The al-Assad regime, for its part, strove to present the uprising as Sunni terrorism, purposefully framing the conflict in sectarian terms in order to frighten and motivate the Syrian Alawite minority and to manipulate international opinion. At one point, around six years ago, commentators were speculating that Syria would be split into separate Sunni and Alawite entities, but Russia’s arrival changed the conflict’s trajectory.
- Russia’s role
The techniques currently utilized by the Damascus regime and its Russian allies were facilitated by the George W. Bush administration’s post-September 11 rhetoric concerning the “War on Terror”. Until that time, armed resistance to violently oppressive regimes was seen as legitimate, but the Bush administration’s semantic shift made it possible for Russia and China to begin terming the violence they perpetrated against their own citizens as “fighting terrorism.” The first result was Russia’s extremely brutal conduct during the Second Chechen War, which provided the essential techniques for how the Damascus regime conducts its military operations against the Syrian opposition.
As Damascus, covered by Russian air power, slowly reasserted its control over various parts of the country, its techniques became progressively more savage. The main example was Aleppo’s destruction by incessant and indiscriminate bombings until the regime regained control over the city in late 2016. Idlib, a predominantly Sunni region to Aleppo’s west, remained outside of regime control, and many other Sunni Syrians were internally displaced to Idlib during the conflict. Eventually Russia and Turkey would work out an agreement through which the several million people in Idlib and its immediate region, in anticipation of an eventual negotiated settlement to the conflict, would be able to stay in Idlib under Turkey’s protection and not be forced to flee to the border or into Turkey.
- Advent of drone wars
Over the past year, the al-Assad regime and its Russian backers made it increasingly clear that they intended to pursue a military course, not a negotiated course. The same barbaric methods used against Aleppo began to be used against Idlib. Turkey’s leadership showed extreme patience with Russia and Damascus, but when the regime martyred more than 30 Turkish soldiers on Feb. 27, the point of no return was crossed. Turkey immediately unleashed the full drone capacity that it had developed over the past five years against al-Assad’s forces, as well as against the Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) militants fighting with them.
The result was stunning devastation. Video after video of drones destroying all types of military vehicles, from tanks to artillery guns to mobile air defense trucks hit the internet in the following hours and days. Thousands of regime soldiers were killed. Suddenly Damascus’s soldiers and allied militants were hiding for their lives under whatever cover they could find, an astonishing reversal after years of operations unhindered by an opposing air force.
Those who have paid attention to the capacities developed by the Turkish military over the past decade were not surprised by the development, but the effectiveness was eye-opening. That the Turkish military’s drones had seriously limited the terrorist PKK’s operational capacities was already known. But what was done to the Damascus regime’s forces starting from the night of Feb. 27 is undoubtedly the first instance of large-scale, coordinated drone use under conflict conditions. This is the future of military operations; Turkey developed the technology and now employs it on the battlefield.
- EU hypocrisy, then complacency
Developments in Idlib demand consideration of another, equally vital question: has Idlib forced foreign politicians to perceive Turkey in a different light? In the hours after the Syrian regime’s attack on Turkish soldiers, firm but novel decisions were taken by the Turkish leadership. The first, described above, was to initiate wider military operations against the Damascus regime’s forces in the Idlib region. On March 5, Turkish officials met with their Russian counterparts to iron out a ceasefire that effectively turned Idlib into a security zone – similar to the Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch, and Peace Spring operation zones in which Turkey already has established its presence. How long the ceasefire will hold remains to be seen.
The second decision was to stop preventing Turkey’s 4 million-plus refugee population from approaching the borders with Bulgaria and Greece on their way to more central EU regions. Predictably, a wave of outraged indignation erupted from Greece, other EU states, and Brussels as thousands of refugees began to congregate at the border and find gaps to slip across. Within several days, thousands had reportedly eluded the Greek border police (who wielded truncheons, tear gas, and rubber bullets against the mass, sometimes lethally).
The initial reactions displayed by EU leaders were apparently meant for domestic consumption in their various countries – they focused mostly on condemning Turkey, reflected nothing more than a continued refusal to shoulder their share of responsibility for the situation, and repeated previous attempts to justify an unethical and detestable stance. On Sunday, March 1, EU foreign ministers decided to call an emergency meeting in response to the wave of refugees. Social media commentators immediately mocked the move, noting that the current crisis has been building for more than a year and that only when refugees showed up at the EU’s door did the situation become an “emergency.”
On March 2, German Chancellor Angela Merkel suddenly realized that the situation in Idlib was a crisis that called for a safe zone for the civilians under threat from the regime. Only after thousands were slaughtered in Aleppo, and then three years more of the same in Idlib, did this conclusion finally occur to the chancellor. Merkel’s announcement was also instantly ridiculed on social media. These sorts of reactions from EU politicians are exactly the sort of brain-dead hypocrisy that has marked the EU’s past decade.
Within several days a change of attitude became obvious, however, as the same leaders lined up for hastily arranged meetings with Turkish officials. Eventually, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with EU Council President Charles Michel and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron are slated to come to Istanbul. The implication? Only the decisions taken on the evening of Feb. 27 were sufficient to push EU leaders in the right direction.
- New comprehension of Turkey necessary
The fundamental and urgent lesson that foreign governments, political leaders, observers, commentators, think-tankers, journalists and others must derive from this episode is to take Turkey seriously. By that I do not only mean that they should simply, and finally, relieve themselves of the prejudices that fill their minds and distort their perception of and thinking about Turkey. They need to begin seeing Turkey as an equal immediately, and begin behaving towards Turkey in an appropriate manner. The choices of EU politicians are not simply decisions; they are preferences laden with symbolic meaning. When Germany, for example, declares that it will accept only orphaned refugee children, the world understands that as an example of German amorality or chauvinism. The EU’s attitude towards Turkey, in reality, indicates similar tendencies to the world.
Especially important is the attitude of Turkey’s NATO allies, and more specifically its American partners in the Pentagon. The Pentagon needs to immediately forego all excuses for not fulfilling its contractual obligations to Turkey as a NATO ally. The reason that Turkey turned towards Russia for air defense systems was because the U.S. refused to do the right thing and provide Patriot systems. Let’s be clear: the fault lies with the U.S., not Turkey.
Meanwhile, some EU citizens turned to conspiracy theories, helped along by biased or distorted reporting from EU and international media, to justify the Greek government’s and Brussels’ unethical, inhumane, and even murderous stance towards the refugees. For example, there were widespread claims that the Turkish government “forced” the refugees to go to the border. That claim is patently ridiculous, and broad television coverage showed massive numbers of refugees making their way to the border – on their own through various methods, even walking – starting from the moment that President Erdogan announced that the government would no longer prevent refugees from approaching the border. Such conspiracy theories do nothing more than prolong the EU’s refusal to recognize its culpability and make the correct decisions.
Greece, a country of only ten million that has been steeped in a financial crisis for the past decade, already hosts a large number of refugees, so the responsibility of Brussels, Berlin, and Paris for the situation’s descent into chaos should be emphasized far more than Greece’s. At the same time, the violence that Greece met the refugees with (as well as enabling commentary such as that from EU Council President Michel) and the conditions that Greece hosts refugees in should be condemned in the strongest terms.
- The egg hatches
All of the above should be understood in relation to the Turkish proverb included at the beginning of this commentary. The actions and decisions of various Western leaders over the past ten years were attempts to ignore, delay, or shirk their responsibilities in relation to the Syrian crisis. The original fault lies with the U.S., which invaded Iraq in 2003 on false pretenses, resulting in the devastation of Iraqi society, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and the destabilization of the entire region. The U.S.’ refusal – first by the Obama administration and then by the Trump administration – to do the right thing in Syria has done nothing but exacerbate the problem, extend the death and devastation in Syria, and provide Vladimir Putin inroads to the Eastern Mediterranean, a strategic mistake of historic proportions.
The EU, on the other hand, has had one worry only, underpinned by the racism that continues to plague European mentalities (despite the disasters of the past century): “prevent the refugees from reaching us.” Even though refugees were their prime concern, EU leaders were not able to follow information and events to their logical conclusion, i.e. that direct intervention into the Syrian conflict through a no-fly zone was the inescapable condition through which the flow of refugees might be stemmed. That reality also did not inspire EU leaders to approach the Turkish leadership, or its perspective, with more openness or respect. Just the opposite; the EU leadership vacuum that opened up in the past ten years produced only narrow, bigoted, and hypocritical stances towards Turkey.
The egg has arrived at the U.S.’s, the EU’s, and NATO’s doorstep, and decisions that could have prevented the current situation have faded into the past. The new situation will require all three to adjust their approaches and mentalities. Will they display not just the ability, but the will to make the correct choices?
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.