Turkish FM mediating between Iraq and Syria

As long-time JWN readers are aware, I have always been worried about the prospect that as the US military decreases its presence in Iraq, many of the country’s neighbors would rush in to fill the resulting security vacuum and the contest between them could escalate in many unpredictable ways. That was why I strongly urged– from long before the Iraq Study Group endorsed this necessary recommendation– that as the US withdraws either Washington or, preferably, the UN should convene a high-level meeting of Iraq, the US, and all Iraq’s neighbors to work out a code of conduct for the behaviors of all parties with regard to Iraq; and preferably also establish a UN-based monitoring and incident-resolution mechanism to follow up on compliance with those agreements.
The US government hasn’t done that, though the troop withdrawal is already well underway and some serious tensions have already been emerging. And neither has the UN done much to put into place such a plan.
I guess for both the US and the UN, the ‘sensitivity’ of including Iran in any such arrangement seems like a real obstacle. (I wish, obviously that the UN had a lot more independence from US tutelage at this point.)
But now, Turkey seems to be stepping into the conflict-reduction role in a significant way. Today, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is scheduled to pay consecutive visits to Iraq and Syria to try to resolve the conflict that’s erupted since the Iraqi government accused Syria of harboring the opposition leaders who, Baghdad alleges, orchestrated the bombings of various Iraqi ministries on August 19 that killed 95 and wounded more than 600, many of them ministry employees.
Davutoğlu became foreign minister only a couple of months ago. But before that, as a much respected foreign-policy intellectual, he was a special adviser to Turkish PM Rejep Tayyip Erdoğan. In that role, he spearheaded a fascinating– though ultimately unsuccessful– series of “proximity talks” between Syria and Ehud Olmert’s government in Israel.
The idea that Turkey may be in a position to help Iraq and its six neighbors keep tensions among them to a minimum as US power recedes may seem counter-intuitive, since for a couple of generations many Iraqis, Syrians, and other Arabs retained a degree of remembered resentment against Turkey over the oppressive role the Ottoman Empire played against ethnic-Arab nationalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, I was surprised during my last few visits to Syria to discover the degree to which Syrians in and close to government– and Syrians in general– seem to have “gotten over” those sensitivities.
Indeed, many Syrians I’ve spoken to in the past couple of years speak of Turkey as something of a current role model for them. Many Syrians look at the success that Turkey has had in dealing with challenges like economic development, finding an internal balance between the forces of secularism and Islamism, finding an external balance between ‘east’ and ‘west’, the challenges posed by Kurds and other national minorities– and they wish they could emulate them.
The same is true, I think, of many other Arabs.
This doesn’t mean that, among Iraq and all of its neighbors, there are NO remaining sensitivities regarding Turkey’s role in the region. But it does mean there is considerably more scope for a leading Turkish role in reducing the kinds of tensions I’m worried about in the whole peri-Iraq theater than many people (self included) would have thought possible even five or ten years ago.
By the way, the watchword of the academic work Davutoğlu has done on Turkey’s foreign policy is that it should be aimed not just at “zero problems with the neighbors”, but also at intense engagement with the neighbors. (And yes, that includes Armenia, where the Erdogan government has taken some notable steps towards reducing earlier tensions.)
You can read two of my recent evaluations of Turkey’s new regional role here and here.
Turkey now has good relations with Iraq and all of its neighbors– including Iran– as well as with the US, which will continue to be a power in the region even as it departs. Turkey is, of course, a full member of NATO and retains numerous other very good links with the west.
I do wish, though, the Ban Ki-Moon and the weight of UN legitimacy was also a lot more involved in this peri-Iraq tension reduction effort.

10 thoughts on “Turkish FM mediating between Iraq and Syria”

  1. You shouldn’t exaggerate the significance of this affair, Helena. It’s a side-show.
    Assad had the right dismissive response, according to the BBC:
    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has brushed aside Baghdad’s accusations, saying stability in Iraq was in Syria’s interests.
    Unless Maliki is simply off-track, this spat is a cover-up to avoid more serious political issues.
    The problem with your commentary, Helena, lies in your phraseology: as the US military decreases its presence in Iraq, many of the country’s neighbors would likely rush in to fill the resulting security vacuum.
    There is no security vacuum, though the Iraqis don’t have much in the way of armaments. Iraq is not a prostrate corpse, although there are many powers who would have you believe it.
    And who is threatening to rush in? Well, there’s only one and that’s the Kurds. They are extremely keen to nick some Iraqi territory. That already puts us in a different ball game, as that is supposedly an internal affair.
    The only potential international conflict on the horizon – still some way off – is with the same Turkey you so highly approve of. The question of the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris, which Iraq is absolutely dependent on. There’ve been endless reports this year about the drought in Iraq. Although this year has been dry, it is the fault of the Turks, as they have cut to the minimum the quantity of water in the rivers. (To make a comparison, one of these days, the Ethiopians are going to build a big dam on the Blue Nile, and simply cut off the flow. Very little water in the White Nile by the way. So what would Egypt do about that?)
    No doubt this will be one of the subjects discussed during Davutoglu’s visit to Baghdad. Yes, it is a sort of exploitation of weakness, but they would probably have done it, whether or not Iraq had been invaded in 2003.

  2. it is our hope that Iraq will live as a peaceful and cooperative member of the family of nations, thus enhancing the security and stability of the Gulf.

    Bush – Attack on Iraq speech
    SIX years past:
    Just today/yesterday on Iraqi TV news saying Saudi terrorist went and trained in Syria caught with some who are responsible for the Iraqi 9/11 Attack?
    Here we ago Saudis terrorist? Just two days the Saudi prince survived from suicide explosions, so the breeding ground going on, last week Saudi authorities arrested 45 terrorist as stated by Saudi media some went to training cam even met Osama Bin Laden! Which US still hunting for him.
    Therefore, individuals met OBL, but CIA with all its capabilities have no idea whet this rat hiding. Very… very disturbing…
    Helena, let be open here as far as there are conflicts inside Iraq or with its neighbours this serve US presence in Iraq in such away, this lead us who really behind all this disturbing conflicts and acts.
    Syria not only country on the ground, there is Iran, Kuwaitis, Turkey Saudi, Jordan and Israelis all have did and doing dirty work inside Iraq.
    But let not forgot Jack Straw statement “we are part of the problem in Iraq”
    It’s not often that a United States Senator declares that the American military have been defeated in the field and demands that the President surrender and retreat from the Senate floor. In fact, we can call April 20th Harry Reid D-I Day — for Defeat in Iraq. Two years ago, the shrill Majority Leader demanded an end to the “surge” strategy that would later prove successful in stabilizing Iraq and an immediate withdrawal of all American troops:

    The Senate debate on Iraq grew sharper Thursday when Majority Leader Harry Reid said the war had been lost and that President Bush’s troop buildup is not stemming the rampant violence. That statement prompted Republicans to declare that Democrats do not support the troops in Iraq.

    “I believe myself that the secretary of state, secretary of defense and — you have to make your own decisions as to what the president knows — (know) this war is lost and the surge is not accomplishing anything as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq yesterday,” said Reid.

    The White House called Reid’s remarks “disturbing” and a slap at troops who are risking their lives.

  3. Actually, it is possible that Maliki has been led off-track by the accusations over the Baghdad bombings, as noted in the thread on the “tussle”.
    (Note to Helena: is it possible to make a link to a specific comment? If so, I can’t find it.)
    I am sorry to see this spat with Syria. I hope it will be dropped. It could be consuming Iraqi efforts which might be better directed elsewhere.

  4. Forgot to add (again):
    Maliki has got pretty much everything right since summer last year (and probably before, if one includes the battle in Basra). He played the US exactly right and has obtained what he wants, with no great prospect of the US turning around and refusing to withdraw.
    That is why it is sad if he has taken his eye off the ball to accuse the Syrians.
    The upcoming conflict is to settle with the Kurds. I wouldn’t be surprised if the product of Davutoglu’s visit to Baghdad wasn’t more to do with relations with the Kurds, and water problems, than an irrelevant spat with Damascus.

  5. Hey Salah, you listed everybody doing dirty work in Iraq except the Iraqis themselves. I am sure they are running around with angel halos over their heads. Glen Chapman compiled what you are doing to Mandeans (also in Iran Mr. Pirouz):
    “The Mandaeans today in southern Iraq and Iran and there is a colony in Australia. They
    have been a distinct people for thousands of years. They claim to be descendants of Abraham
    Seth and Noah. They have large libraries of their writings and scriptures. Their doctrines are very
    different from Islam. They practice Immersion baptism and belief in one God. They have always
    been persecuted by Islam . The persecution is not localized…”
    edited for length and because this is not a place paste in stuff from elsewhere.

  6. August 22, the Iraqi government began announcing the arrests of suspects connected to the Baath Party. On that day, the Baghdad Operations Command reported that it had arrested a man involved in the bombings who admitted that he was a Baathist. Later that day Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that more suspects had been picked up as well.

    August 23 the Baghdad Operations Command aired a taped confession of one of the arrestees who said that he was a former policeman from the Muqdadiya district of Diyala and a Baathist. He claimed that the truck bomb on the Finance Ministry was put together in Muqdadiya, and that he paid $10,000 in bribes to get it through security checkpoints. Two Baathist officials in Syria were said to have ordered the attack. Other confessions were supposed to be coming, and a military spokesman said guards at three checkpoints in Diyala had been arrested.

    August 25 the Iraqi cabinet demanded that Damascus turn over the two Baathists to Baghdad, followed by Maliki’s spokesman calling on Syria to expel or turnover all terrorists in the country.

    August 29 the Interior Ministry reported that it had arrested 14 suspects from a terrorist cell that were behind the bombings. The men led authorities to a bomb factory in the Ghazaliyah district of Baghdad and were allegedly members of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Both of the suicide bombers involved in the attack were supposedly released from the American prison Camp Bucca a few months ago.

  7. Mandeans?
    I am sure you don’t know any thing about them what they believes, where they living which part of Iraq.
    Don’t be smart dude, we knew you and your IQ and your little mind….

  8. No Peace Without Syria

    “No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria.” — Henry Kissinger
    Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, flew to Damascus this weekend to cajole Syria into re-entering peace talks with Israel. He’s going to go home disappointed, if not now then later, just as every other Western diplomat before him has failed to put an end to the perpetual Arab-Israeli conflict. Bashar Assad couldn’t sign a peace treaty with Israel even if he wanted to — and he doesn’t want to.
    Assad and his late father and former president Hafez Assad have justified the dictatorial “emergency rule,” on the books since 1963, by pointing to the never-ending war with the state of Israel. Many Syrians have grown weary of this excuse after more than four decades of crisis, but Assad would nevertheless face more pressure to loosen up his Soviet-style system without it.
    An official state of war costs Assad very little. His army does not have to fight. His father learned the hard way in 1967 that Israel could beat three Arab armies, including Syria’s own, in six days. Assad can only fight Israel through proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah, but that suits him just fine. Gaza and Lebanon absorb Israel’s incoming fire when the fighting heats up.
    Assad gains a lot, though, by buying himself some legitimacy with the Muslim Brotherhood.
    Syria’s fundamentalist Sunnis have long detested his Baath party regime, not only because it’s secular and oppressive but also because its leaders are considered heretics. The Assads and most of the Baathist elites belong to the Alawite religious minority, descendants of the followers of Muhammad ibn Nusayr, who took them out of mainstream Twelver Shiite Islam in the 10th century. Their religion has as much in common with Christianity and Gnosticism as it does with Islam, and most Syrians find it both bizarre and offensive that the Alawites are in charge of the country instead of the majority Sunnis.
    In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood took up arms against the regime in the city of Hama. The elder Assad dispatched the Alawite-dominated military and destroyed most of the old city with air strikes, tanks, and artillery. Rifaat Assad, the former president’s younger brother, boasted that 38,000 people were killed in a single day. Not once since then have the Muslim Brothers tried to rise up again.
    In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman dubbed the senior Assad’s rules of engagement “Hama Rules.” They are the Syrian stick. The carrot is Assad’s steadfast “resistance” against Israel. No Arab government in the world is as stridently anti-Israel, in both action and rhetoric, as Assad’s. There is no better way for a detested Alawite regime to curry favor with Sunnis in Syria and the Arab world as a whole than by adopting the anti-Zionist cause as its own.
    Earlier this year, I met with Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who asserted that the Alawite regime is actually afraid of signing a peace treaty with Israel. As the leader of a religious minority himself, Jumblatt knows better than most how risky it can be to cross the majority.
    “Suppose,” he said, “we go ultimately to the so-called peace. Then later on, what is the purpose of the Syrian regime? What is Assad going to tell his people? Especially, mind you, he is a member of the Alawite minority. This minority could be accused of treason. It’s not like Egypt or Jordan whereby the government has some legitimacy. Here you get accused of treason by the masses, by the Sunnis. So using classic slogans like ‘Palestine will liberate the Golan with Hezbollah’ is a must for him to stay in power.” Syria’s Alawite elites understand this very well, even if Western diplomats like Javier Solana do not.
    “When Hafez Assad was about to fix up the so-called settlement through Bill Clinton,” Jumblatt continued, “and before they met him in Geneva, a prominent Alawite officer in the Syrian army came to Assad and said, ‘What are you doing? We will be lost if you make peace. We will be accused of treason.’ ”
    I don’t know for sure whether Syria’s Sunni Arabs — who make up around 70 percent of the population — would actually accuse Assad of treason and seriously threaten to remove him from power if he signed a peace treaty. But that’s how many Alawites see it. As “infidels” they don’t feel they have the legitimacy to force Sunni Arabs to make peace with Israel. That is a risky business even for Sunni Arab leaders, as the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat shows.
    Most of Syria’s Alawites live along the Mediterranean coast, away from the Sunni heartland. They could, at least theoretically, be separated from Syria into their own Alawite nation. The Middle East would probably be a safer place if they were. They did have their own semiautonomous government under the French Mandate between 1930 and 1937, and again from 1939 to 1944, but their Latakia region has been a part of Syria ever since.
    Such a nation almost certainly would make peace with Israel, at least eventually, if it wasn’t ruled by Assad and his thuggish clan. Arab nationalism would lose its appeal among a people that would no longer need to demonstrate belonging to an ethnic majority to make up for its status as a religious minority. The strident anti-Zionism of the Sunni “street” could likewise ease. A free Alawite state might even be a natural ally of Israel for the same reasons the Middle East’s Christians and Kurds tend to be.
    In the meantime, the Assad regime rules a country that’s 70 percent Sunni Arab, and it must govern accordingly. Leading the Arab charge against Israel works for him, which is the reason he does it. And as long as he fears the Sunni “street” and the Muslim Brotherhood more than he fears the Israelis, he isn’t likely to change

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