Turkey Is No Partner for Peace: How Ankara’s Sectarianism Hobbles U.S. Syria Policy
September 17, 2012
Turkey has framed the Syrian conflict in alienating religious terms.
At first glance, it appears that the United States and Turkey are working hand in hand to end the Syrian civil war. On August 11, after meeting with Turkish officials, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement that the two countries’ foreign ministries were coordinating to support the Syrian opposition and bring about a democratic transition. In Ankara on August 23, U.S. and Turkish officials turned those words into action, holding their first operational planning meeting aimed at hastening the downfall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Beneath their common desire to oust Assad, however, Washington and Ankara have two distinctly different visions of a post-revolutionary Syria. The United States insists that any solution to the Syrian crisis should guarantee religious and ethnic pluralism. But Turkey, which is ruled by a Sunni government, has come to see the conflict in sectarian terms, building close ties with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood–dominated Sunni opposition, seeking to suppress the rights of Syrian Kurds, and castigating the minority Alawites — Assad’s sect — as enemies. That should be unsettling for the Obama administration, since it means that Turkey will not be of help in promoting a multi-ethnic, democratic government in Damascus. In fact, Turkish attitudes have already contributed to Syria’s worsening sectarian divisions.
Washington is pushing for pluralism. In Istanbul last month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon emphasized that “the Syrian opposition needs to be inclusive, needs to give a voice to all of the groups in Syria . . . and that includes Kurds.” Clinton, after meeting with her Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, stressed that a new Syrian government “will need to protect the rights of all Syrians regardless of religion, gender, or ethnicity.”
It is unclear, however, whether Ankara is on board. As it lends critical support to the Sunni rebellion, Turkey has not made an attempt to reach out to the other ethnic and sectarian communities in the country. Instead, Turkey has framed the Syrian conflict in alienating religious terms. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), a Sunni conservative bloc, singles out Syria’s Alawites as villains, regularly denouncing their “minority regime.” Hüseyin Çelik, an AKP spokesperson, claimed at a press conference on September 8, 2011, that “the Baath regime relies on a mass of 15 percent” — the percentage of Alawites in the country. Such a narrative overlooks the fact that the Baath regime has long owed its survival to the support of a significant portion of the majority Sunnis.
The AKP has antagonized not only Syria’s Alawites but also its Kurds. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted that his country would resist any Kurdish push for autonomy in parts of northeastern Syria, going so far as to threaten military intervention. The Turkish government’s unreserved support for the Sunni opposition is due not only to an ideological affinity with it but also to the fact that the Sunni rebels oppose the aspirations of the Syrian Kurds.
Meanwhile, the AKP has sought to sell its anti-Assad policy to the Turkish public by fanning the flames of sectarianism at home. The AKP has directed increasingly aggressive rhetoric toward Turkey’s largest religious minority, the Alevis, and accused them of supporting the Alawites out of religious solidarity. The Alevis, a Turkish- and Kurdish-speaking heterodox Muslim minority that comprises approximately one-fifth of Turkey’s population, constitute a separate group from the Arab Alawites. But both creeds share the fate of being treated as heretics by the Sunnis…