Peace Islands Institute’s Center for Global Affairs invited Dr. Alon Ben-Meir, professor at New York University, to discuss interests of major international actors in Syria. The lecture was hosted by Aydogan Vatandas, an investigative journalist. It is a part of the larger project which facilitates academicians, policy makers and public to discuss possible peaceful resolution of the conflict and understand challenges of it.
A no-fly zone over Syria should be imposed without delay to give the opposition Free Syrian Army a chance to fight the Syrian army better, particularly in areas close to the Turkish border, a prominent Middle East expert has said.
"It is not too late; it should be imposed as soon as possible to give the rebels and the Free Syrian Army an opportunity to regroup in Syrian territory --specifically, in territories closer to the Turkish border," Dr. Alon Ben-Meir said in an interview with Today's Zaman. Ben-Meir, who serves as senior fellow at New York University's Center for Global Affairs, said the establishment of such a no-fly zone would also provide a safe place for the Syrians who flee violence, which would in turn mean they would be have displaced status, not refugees.
According to Ben-Meir, what happens in Syria closely affects Turkey, a country that like Syria has a Kurdish population and battles a terrorist campaign by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). "The great concern for Turkey is what will happen when Syria unravels," he said, noting that many Kurds today continue dreaming about creating a Kurdish state. "That is unacceptable to Turkey under any circumstances," said Ben-Meir.
He said Israel, which supported the Kurds in Iraq, "would probably do the same -- supporting the Kurds in Syria should an opportunity arise."
Excerpts from the interview are as follows:
Why do you think that Russia is backing the Syrian regime? Is that because of their traditional geopolitics and interests in the Middle East, or the fear of a prospective Islamist take over in Syria?
As the Soviet Union, we know that it was a major power that could have an influence on a global scale. There is no doubt that that power has diminished since the collapse of the Soviets. However, Russia will continue to project its power. We have seen this in recent years in Syria, for example. Russia is trying to establish its power again. In order to compete economically they have to do this. As you may remember, only five-six years ago Russia was not part of the G8 countries. Now they have been added. They have to do lots of things to re-establish themselves in Europe. As to the Middle East, there is no doubt Russia has been trying very hard to establish its power there. And Syria is especially important. They have a military naval base in Syria. They have a good relationship with Iran. They have direct and indirect relationships with Hezbollah in Lebanon and with Iraq to some extent. For these purposes, to maintain the support for Syria for them is critical. Even if the Assad regime collapses, they still want to exercise some influence because if it does not, Russia will lose a tremendous amount of influence in that region. And this is why they continue to oppose anything that the US or the West does regarding Syria. At the same time, they want to maintain their influence in Iran. So from their perspective, losing Syria would precipitate losing influence in Iran as well. When you look at Russian foreign policy today, it is entirely based on oil. When the price of oil goes down to $30 or $50, Russia will be the first country to be affected. So the oil foreign policy is not sustainable. Vladimir Putin has to find a viable and sustainable foreign policy.
So you do not agree with Russia's concern that if the Assad regime collapses, Islamists will come to power then.
No, I do not agree. If you look inside Syria, they are divided into four groups, Alawites, Sunnis, Christians and Kurds. The majority is of course Sunnis, but it is not a movement like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Nahda in Tunisia. They are much weaker, much smaller than that. Then there is a tremendous amount of fighting among groups. So to claim that Islamists will come to power is overstated. I do not think that's going to happen. Even Sunnis are divided among different groups there.
What do you think about Russian and Chinese geopolitics in the region? Do they agree on everything, or do they have differences?
Their interest is different. China imports nearly 20 percent of its oil from Iran. So if they do not oppose direct intervention in Syria, Iran will not be happy about it. So, there is an economic interest. Russia's interest there is different. They want to maintain their influence from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. So it is a geo-strategic consideration. But there is another issue. They both want to say no to what the United States wants to achieve. That's a mentality of the Cold War for Russia. They want to assert themselves as a leader. To do so, you have to stand up against the US.
What do you think about Turkish interests in Syria?
It is huge. Turkey has a long border with Syria. Whatever happens internally in Syria directly affects Turkey. One of the major issues is also the Kurds. Syria has at least 2 million Kurds. Turkey has about 15 million Kurds. There is an issue of the PKK. The great concern for Turkey is what will happen when Syria unravels. There is an issue of autonomous rule within Syria. Others are talking about recreating Kurdistan. Its borders were arbitrarily divided. Kurdistan existed for one-and-a-half years, from 1921 to 1923. Then it was arbitrarily divided among four countries, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Many Kurds continue dreaming about this possibility. And they see the Arab Spring as a possibility. They dream about recreating Kurdistan. That is unacceptable to Turkey under any circumstances. From history we know that any government in Turkey will not allow any Kurds to establish autonomous rule in Turkey, nor would it cede any territory to establish Kurdistan.
The second issue is bilateral relationships. If you are a neighbor, you have a choice of being an enemy, which is a costly relationship, or being a friend. Turkey has major stakes. We hear Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu suggesting that a no-fly zone be put in effect and that the West should support the rebels more. I remember speaking to top officials in Turkey. They were saying that before, we did not have the legitimacy to interfere. But it has started to change. The number of refugees has started to increase. Turkey has more than 100,000 refugees. And the death toll in Syria is increasing, 30,000 and going up. So Turkey has no choice but to change its approach to the Syrian problem. If there is no interference from the outside, Syria will disintegrate. This will be the biggest problem for Turkey.
Why do you think the United States has not been very aggressive in the Syrian crisis?
President Obama, when he was elected, inherited a terrible situation -- two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. The economy was on the verge of collapse in the US with the highest unemployment rate in decades. Just two years after his election, the Syrian crisis began. The American public does not have the stomach to start another war or military campaign, especially in the Middle East. That's one thing.
The second thing is unlike Libya or Egypt. Egypt is very homogenous -- 90 percent Sunnis, and maybe 10 percent Christians. Libya is different. It has oil. It is close to Europe. So intervention was kind of natural. But Syria is surrounded by different countries that have a conflict with Israel. Iran has great influence on Syria. Syria has a close relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Syria has also been in conflict with Turkey as well. So, whatever happens in Syria has an effect not only on Turkey, but Israel, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. That complicates the matter. You cannot sit down and say that this is the policy we want to implement without considering these issues.
I have always said the United States has fallen short of doing what is right. When we speak about military intervention, we do not mean sending tens of thousands of American troops to Syria. Military intervention can take different kinds of forms. For example, a no-fly zone. I think it is very necessary. It is not too late, it should be imposed as soon as possible to give the rebels and the Free Syrian Army an opportunity to regroup in Syrian territory -- specifically, in territories closer to the Turkish border. This area should be covered by a no-fly zone. That will provide a place for refugees to be in displaced status, not refugee status.
Do you think this can happen after the election in the US?
More likely. But Turkey here has a significant role. Without Turkey, it is impossible to impose a no-fly zone. Now that Turkey is asking for this, if NATO goes along with it and the United States goes along with it, that's a change in attitude. Turkey did not have the legal legitimacy to intervene. But now they also realize that everybody is intervening. Iran is intervening by sending military advisors. Russia is intervening by sending weapons on a regular basis. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are intervening by sending money and some weapons. And the United States is intervening by sending communications gear and some weapons and money indirectly. So everyone is interfering, but they talk about no interference, which is cynical.
When do you think the Assad regime will collapse?
I can say that the Assad regime is finished. When it might happen depends on what other powers do and when they do it. If after the election the United States along with Turkey, in particular these two countries, decide that the time has come, then they will be able to accelerate his demise. If they continue to wait and see, hoping the rebels and the Free Syrian Army create their own zone of immunity, which could take much longer, when Bashar al-Assad goes is questionable because it depends on outside power. But will he eventually go? There is no question about it.
Do you think an Alawite state can emerge in Syria?
If this is going to happen, there will be a Kurdish state, Sunni, Christian. It is not likely to happen; it is not sustainable.
You do not believe that Syria can be divided, then?
It could be divided in the early stages. But to remain divided is going to be a major problem for the Syrian people as well. What happened in Syria cannot be fixed quickly. Regions organize themselves against other regions. It will be a messy situation. They will start to fight one another. But here again, if Turkey and the United States manage together to strengthen the Syrian National Council and create a shadow government representative of all segments of the Syrian people, including Alawites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians, this government will have legitimacy. But also it must include Syrian people in Syria, not only those in exile. If people in this government are all in exile, the Syrian people will not accept them. They will say you were living a wonderful life outside and now came to govern us. So preconditions for this government to succeed are: A) It has to include all segments of the population; and B) it has to include real people from Syria itself and certainly people in exile as well. With the support of the United States and Turkey, and of course with the support of other countries, too, that will be a possibility. It is very difficult, but it can happen. Because the longer this crisis continues, the process of disintegration will unravel, and it will be difficult to put it together. I think the United States is aware of this, and Turkey is definitely aware of this. I am talking to Turkish officials. They know this is something they cannot allow to happen. There is a reason why Turkey is hosting the Syrian National Council. There is a reason why Turkey is supporting the Free Syrian Army. Because they know without these, Syria will unravel and will fall apart.
Do you think that Israel and Turkey's interests are contradictory or similar in Syria?
They do not have the same interest, but have similar concerns. For Israel, what is happening in Syria matters a great deal. What sort of government will come to power? Will it provoke Israel? What Israelis say about Assad and his father is that they kept peace with Israel: They have committed themselves to the agreement of 1974 and have never broken the agreement, not even once. This is very important for Israelis. Israel was comfortable to live with Bashar and his father because no peace, no war was fine. They continued to build settlements in the Golan Heights. It was an acceptable arrangement. After enmity between Turkey and Syria for many years, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan resolved the question of water, resolved the question regarding the Kurds, as far as Syria is concerned, and developed an excellent relationship with Syria. But he could not support a government that has been so oppressive and willing to slaughter its own people. There is a geo-strategic intercept between Israel and Turkey. And they both have to work together and cooperate because whatever happens in Syria is going to have an impact on both countries. I am personally very sad about what happened to the Mavi Marmara. The relationship between the two countries has worsened. However trade between Israel and Turkey remains highest compared to recent months. So Turkey has a unique interest in maintaining a different level of relationship with Israel. And Israel also has that kind of interest. We need to bring them together. I am making an effort to do so.
You mentioned that Kurds dream about a greater Kurdistan. What do the Israelis think about that? I know Iran and Turkey do not want that to happen. What about Israel?
Israel looks at its own interests in terms of national security. Israelis supported the Kurds in Iraq. They had been selling them weapons, training, because it served their interests against Saddam Hussein. They would probably do the same supporting the Kurds in Syria should an opportunity arise.
Do you think they will do it right now?
They will not. They want to restore the relationship with Turkey because Turkey is a major power in the Middle East, and it is the only Muslim country the Israelis have had a good relationship with. So it is a balancing act to the Israelis. They will not stop supporting the Kurds in Iraq because this gives the Israelis certain advantages in the region.
What can be done to restore the relationship between Israel and Turkey?
There is no valid reason for not restoring this relationship and diplomatic relations, immediately. Both know they need each other. Remember that Turkey was the first country that recognized Israel and also the only Muslim country that has maintained a political and diplomatic relationship with Israel since 1949. Turkey also is proud that as the Ottoman Empire it provided refuge and protection for Jews throughout the Middle East. This is what Turks today still talk about. So the relationship between Israelis/Jews and Turks/Ottomans has always been good. There is no reason this cannot be restored. What we can do about the current situation, I must tell you, we have been working on this for the last three years, almost non-stop. I think Syria is a great opportunity for these countries to come together. I had many conversations with leaders from both sides. We tried to fashion some kind of language for Israel to apologize and get on with it.
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