August 25, 2016
Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus met a group of journalists, professors and think tank representatives on August 15, 2016. He reportedly said: “Many of the things Turkey is facing today is the result of our Syria policy. This is also true for others but we could not formulate a viable policy. I wish a perspective of peace had been created in the beginning…” By “things” he must have meant the problems, challenges and the threats Turkey is currently confronted with.
In a country where “self-criticism” remains anathema, this was a most remarkable admission. Mr. Kurtulmus is not a member of the opposition. He is not a columnist. He is not a blogger. He is the Deputy Prime Minister of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) Government which, through a string of election victories, has been in power since 2002. So, his words carry weight and must be of consequence. It is understandable that he refrained from going into specifics but the thrust of his statement was clear. Indeed, it all started with Syria and a reckless strategy to redesign the Middle East.
Today we are home to three million unhappy Syrian refugees. The future of the “refugee/visa deal” with the EU in which the Government has invested a huge amount of political capital looks uncertain. ISIL and al-Nusra are more than our neighbors; they are in Turkey. We are faced with serious economic problems, internal and external security challenges. Terrorist attacks are claiming more and more lives. A state of lawlessness has gripped the country. Turkish foreign policy has lost direction. Our foray into the Syrian conflict has adversely affected our relations with regional countries. It has created strains between Ankara and our NATO allies, in particular the US. It has damaged our cooperation with Russia. In brief, it has yielded nothing but trouble. Recent steps aimed at reconciliation with Israel and Russia only prove that the Government has finally recognized the need for a course change.
Pivotal to Government’s Syria policy has always been the influx of the Syrian refugees. This was purposefully made the starting point of the war on Assad. “How could we even think of closing our doors to them?” they always said. Of course, once refugees were at the border was little else to be done. But what if we had:
• refrained from organizing ostentatious Syrian opposition meetings in Istanbul’s luxury hotels and avoided rhetoric;
• refrained from supporting dubious “opposition” groups;
• kept our lines of communication open with both Damascus and the moderate opposition;
• pursued a relentless search for a Syrian political solution by Syrians until this very day;
• advised Syria’s warring parties to exercise restraint to avoid/contain a humanitarian disaster;
• (failing to prevent a refugee influx) told the Assad regime and the opposition that Turkey would establish a safe-haven within Syria to provide for the refugees regardless of their political/religious affiliation; and,
• become a leading player in the Geneva peace process?
Could all of that present us with a totally different picture today? Hard to tell, but we could have made a difference. Whatever the outcome, we could at least,
• be on the right side of the Syrian conflict;
• reduce our refugee burden;
• keep terrorist groups at a distance;
• prevent Turkey form becoming an alleged jihadist pipeline; and,
• enhance our position as a regional power without having to send our forces across the border.
Britain’s role in the invasion of Iraq has always been a subject of controversy. Thus, on 15 June 2009, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, told the House of Commons:
“With the last British combat troops about to return home from Iraq, now is the right time to ensure that we have a proper process in place to enable us to learn the lessons of the complex and often controversial events of the last six years. I am today announcing the establishment of an independent Privy Counsellor committee of inquiry which will consider the period from summer 2001, before military operations began in March 2003, and our subsequent involvement in Iraq right up to the end of July this year. The Inquiry is essential because it will ensure that, by learning lessons, we strengthen the health of our democracy, our diplomacy and our military.”
Mr. Brown had succeeded Mr. Tony Blair as the Leader of the Labor Party and Prime Minister. Party interests did not prevent him from authorizing the Iraq Inquiry (*).
Seven years later, on July 6, 2016, Sir John Chilcot, the Chair of the Inquiry made a statement on the “Report of the Iraq Inquiry” summarizing the conclusions with precision, civility and eloquence.
Turkey needs to launch a similar inquiry into our involvement in the Syrian conflict. Some would say that the country is going through an upheaval and this is not a good time for such an endeavor. On the contrary, the cost our Syrian policy has been so high that we cannot afford to wait. We must understand, sooner than later, what went wrong, where, how and why because this conflict is not going to disappear in the foreseeable future. The Government always stresses that Turkish democracy is on track and from time to time it even says that we are an “advanced democracy”. In a democracy people have a right to know. As PM Gordon Brown put it in 2009, a “Syria Inquiry” may ensure that by learning lessons we Turks also “strengthen the health of our democracy, our diplomacy and our military”. And, our security…
(*) The Iraq Inquiry, July 11, 2016