Last week large numbers of demonstrators took to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara expressing opposition to Turkish military intervention in neighbouring Syria. As a rule, my diplomatic representatives in the New Zealand Embassy in Ankara are quick to warn me (and other Kiwis in the vicinity) of any potential danger. Since they have not yet done so, I am assuming/hoping that means there is no immediate threat of war. Nevertheless, tension is undoubtedly mounting, and Turkey is facing increasing problems as a result of the on-going strife between President Bashar al Assad and forces opposing his regime.
Istanbul is a long way from the Syrian border – around 1200 kilometres and at least a twelve-hour drive – so life in the big city is continuing with most of us pretty much unaffected by events in the distant southeast. On the other hand, it’s not much more than an hour’s flying time away, and the news media are more than happy to bring us images of death and destruction. The latest piece of rabble-rousing in our local paper has been the publishing of comparative statistics of the two countries’ armed forces – showing Turkey with a handy advantage in manpower and hardware. So if we were looking at a football match, say, you’d probably put your money on the Turks . . . but we’re not talking about a football match, and I have to say I’m pretty impressed with the restraint shown so far by the Turkish Government, in what is an extremely delicate situation.
For a start, the AK Party Government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had been doing its best to play a peacekeeping role in the Middle East and North Africa. A laudable aim, you might think, but scant thanks they got for it. Critics at home and abroad accused them of harbouring neo-Ottoman imperialist ambitions; secularists in Turkey proclaimed loudly against a perceived Islamic secret agenda; and there was much gloating when the government’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy began to unravel in the face of continuing Arab Spring insurgencies.
The crisis in Syria is particularly disturbing for the Turkish Government for a number of reasons. PM Erdoğan had been trying to work with Syrian President Bashar al Assad with the aim of normalising Syria’s international relations. Clearly his failure to achieve this must be a major disappointment. However, that’s the least of his worries now. We hear a lot about Russian support for Assad’s regime, and once again the Russians are emerging as a potential evil empire. Maybe so, but this fighting in Syria has been going on for seventeen months now. How are those rebels managing to carry on the fight against a government supplied with Russian military hardware? You can only do so much with stones, slingshots and Molotov cocktails. Luckily for the anti-Assadists, it seems they have been getting outside help as well, from friends in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, enabling them to put up more resistance than might otherwise have been expected.
|The border with Turkey is 822 km long|
Consequently, for those seventeen months there has been a flow of refugees from Syria to neighbouring countries. Turkey has so far received nearly 100,000, and thousands more are reportedly waiting to enter. Angelina Jolie, bless her, has paid two visits to refugee camps and praised Turkey’s humanitarian efforts, but praise and thanks don’t meet the cost of food and shelter, which will only increase with winter approaching. Another cost to Turkey was the loss, in June, of an F4 reconnaissance jet, shot down by trigger-happy gunners. The Syrians claim, and the Turks deny, that the plane had invaded their airspace. Still, normal practice is to issue a warning before blowing the aircraft out of the sky. Exacerbating Turkish unease is the increasing activity of Syria’s Kurdish population. It seems they are taking advantage of the chaos to agitate for their own autonomous homeland. Iraqi Kurds had already achieved a level of independence as a result of the US invasion. The Turkish Government understandably sees a growing threat to their own territorial integrity. A more recent consequence of fighting close to the border has been stray mortar bombs and artillery shells exploding in Turkish villages and killing Turkish civilians.
Well, it would be a nightmare scenario for any government. The United States has been quick to exact revenge for deaths of its own citizens, to the extent of invading sovereign states with no clearly established connection to the killings. Mr Erdoğan has so far shown himself less inclined to go in shooting, despite calls from hawks in his own country to avenge the two lost pilots, for example. His government has, however, instructed its military to fire a few artillery rounds back at targets across the border, to make it clear that tolerance has its limits. We can appreciate that, despite those antiwar protests mentioned above, there is a strong temptation for Turkey to send in its powerful military, and help the forces of democracy oust that evil dictator Assad, whose refusal to go quietly seems to be causing all the trouble. But is it that simple?
Undoubtedly, on the face of it, Assad’s regime looks anything but democratic. In a part of the world where religion is a hugely divisive force, Syrian Sunni Muslims make up 74 percent of the population. The president, however, belongs to the Alawi sect, and his appointees dominate the government, despite representing only ten percent. A further ten percent belong to various Christian groupings, including a significant number of Armenians. Some argue, however, that Assad provides the strong leadership necessary to hold together a diverse population, and clearly his support extends beyond the narrow limits of his own religious affiliation.
Another state bordering on Syria, Lebanon is said to be the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East. A recent product of the Turkish movie industry, “Conquest 1453”, glorifying the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, is not being shown there, because of protests by Greek Orthodox Christians, who comprise a mere five percent of the population. Evidently they exert an influence greater than their numbers would suggest, and it seems Christians in Syria also support Bashar al Assad.
Still, you have to wonder what interest the Russians have in a predominantly Muslim land, so far from their borders. Syria does have oil and gas reserves, but not in sufficient quantity to make it a major player in world markets. What Syria does have, however, is a geo-politically significant location.
I have a young Syrian colleague at work. Over the summer he went back home to visit his family, a risky but necessary trip. He told me his older brother, a noncombatant minding his own business, had been killed recently. I expressed sympathy, and tried to show an interest by referring to some of the information I had gleaned from mass media reports on the conflict. His take on the situation, however, was somewhat different. He was convinced that, once again, it’s all about the oil – in this case a pipeline that US and European interests want to build to bypass the unreliable and dangerous route involving the Persian Gulf, the Straits of Hormuz and the Suez Canal. Pipe the oil and natural gas out to the Mediterranean via a friendly Syria and you’ve got a clear run for your mega tankers through less treacherous seas to your First World lands of maximum consumption. Trouble is, Bashar al Assad has been anything but friendly to the West, and Russia would prefer not to lose control of supplies to Europe. Turkey too would rather see a pipeline pass through its own territory, and certainly does not want an unstable Syria on its volatile southeast border.
Instability, however, from the US point of view, and the British Empire’s before them, if you look at their record, is less important than the short term benefits of resource exploitation – as long as the instability is a safe distance from home. The US Government may not be Involving itself directly in Syria, but is more than happy to see its Arab allies do so. So says my friend Khalil. And considering that the US did a deal with the Saudis last December to supply them with $30 billion worth of arms, those guys are not short of military hardware to pass on.
In the mean time, the war in Syria goes on, with an estimated death toll now of over thirty thousand; refugees, homeless and destitute, continue to flee across the borders to Turkey and other neighbouring states whose resources to feed and house them are limited; stray bombs and shells also cross borders, killing innocent civilians and increasing the risk that the conflict will escalate to an international scale.
I ran into a former student the other day and, while chatting, I asked what he had done over the summer. It emerged that he comes from a Turkish town, Kilis, very close to the southeast border. He said he had actually been into Syria, working with a local humanitarian organization supplying food and medicines and so on to civilians displaced and impoverished by the conflict. He didn’t go into details, but the things he saw were so sad, he said.
Back in the 19th century, the British Empire was engaged in activities that came to be known as The Great Game. It was played out in the north of India and Afghanistan, and involved a century-long struggle with the Russian Empire for control of India, the jewel in Queen Victoria’s imperial crown. Two Anglo-Afghan wars were fought, the first of which, from 1838 to 1842, resulted in a major military disaster, after the Brits attempted to install a puppet regime in Kabul. Well, some of the players may change, but the game, it seems, continues. The Age of Empires is by no means over, and not played out merely by nerds on computer screens.