Response on Syria and Turkey

In response to my planting on Syria and Turkey, I received the following message from Professor Kürsad Turan of the Department of International Relations, Gazi University, Ankara, Turkey.

With Professor Turan’s permission, I am posting it here.
I am an assistant professor at Gazi University, Ankara – Turkey, working on ethnicity and the Middle East. Mike from Central American Politics passed your question on “A cross-border comparison of political institutions and communal conflict” along to me for comment and I thought I may be able to clarify some things.

I have read both articles you mentioned. It is true that both countries have very diverse populations, but they are nor necessarily paralel to each other. Alawites in Syria are as similar as it is claimed to Alevis in Turkey. Religiously speaking Alevis in Turkey represent a mixture of the Shiites and former Turkish religions, with more emphasis on the latter. As a result, they do not necessarily match well with Syrian Alawites. It is true that there is a double standard when it comes to places of worship, but it seems to me that it mainly stems from the Sunni religious establishment’s unwillingness to share the resources given to religious bureaucracy (I may be wrong on that one, it is an interpretation of what we have been hearing from both sides before the elections).

When it comes to keeping Syrian refugees away from the general population I can say with certainty that it has nothing to do with ethnic identities of both countries because that is not a concern here in Turkey. There are three reasons for that choice. Prior to and after the Gulf War (1991) Turkey experienced two large waves of Kurdish refugees from Northern Iraq and very few of these refugees returned to Iraq until now. This posed to types of problems. First, economically they increased the pressure in a region where the economy was bad (due to underdevelopment) to begin with and had become even worse following the war. Second, it is believed that at least some of them were either connected to PKK (Kurdish separatist terrorist organizaton focused on Turkey, but with members from Iraq and Syria, as well as Turkey), or facilitated the movements of the organization accross the border, creating a security threat. There is also a practical reason for the refugee camps. When the refugees are kept in camps instead of being mixed in the general population they occupy the headlines and are considered a global problem that at least the UN needs to contribute to its solution. Otherwise they become Turkey’s problem that should be dealt with Turkey’s resources.

Regarding the ethnic coalition in Syria, it is true that it relies on minority groups that do not want to be ruled by a Sunni majority, however, it would be somewhat of an exaggeration to include Kurds in that group because Kurdish groups often demanded some form of autonomy and have been regularly repressed by the regime.

The relative calm in larger cities can be attributed to the development of a middle class over the past decade, but it can also be argued that authoritarian regimes focus more heavily on large cities that have a larger potential to become a source of opposition movements.

I think the Yugoslav analogy is only wishfull thinking by Israel because a broken-up Syria does not benefit anybody, including the parts that will come out of it, other than Israel. For Israel, even though Syria is not and cannot become a military threat in the near future, they are capable of posing an indirect threat by supporting various terrorist organizations and through their diminished influence over Lebanon. It should also be taken into consideration that in a Sunni dominated Syria one of the main groups will be Muslim Brotherhood, which is more radical than their chapters in Egypt and Jordan.

I agree that the study would be an interesting one, but I do not think these countries did not have a similar enough exerience in the past to justify such a comparison. I think it may be more interesting to compare Iraq and Syria considering they were ruled by the same party (or at least ideology) for a long time, ethnically diverse, and ruled by a minority group. On the other hand, they differ on the sect that rules the country, their level of natural resources, and their neighbors (Iran and Israel). Hope this was helpful.


Kür?ad Turan Asst. Prof. Department of International Relations Gazi University Ankara – TURKEY

The Syrian difference

In a brief and informative piece published eons ago in the current context (9 March), Bassam Haddad offers some comparisons between and among Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia.

Since its appearance, the article’s suggestions that large-scale rebellion would not happen in Syria, and that whatever unrest might occur would likely center on the north, look less prescient. Nonetheless, the arguments as to why a collapse of the regime remains unlikely still seem about right.

Quick summary of main points: Civil society is far less organized than it had been in Egypt for a decade or more, “Tunisia’s state, regime, and government did not overlap nearly as much as those of Syria do,” and “state-society relationships in Syria are much thicker than those of Libya, where detachment at the top has reached delusional levels.”

Egyptians greet first “democratic” vote with a yawn

Is Egypt’s revolution, if it ever was one, now officially over?

The results of Saturday’s referendum on amendments to the constitution–seen as a first step towards competitive elections later this year–suggest less than great excitement.

According to Ahram, the turnout was around 41%. Yes, forty one.

Of those who bothered to show up, 77.2% said yes to the amendments.

I wondered how this compared to other referenda on either a new constitution, or amendments to the pre-existing authoritarian one, in past transitions to democracy.

The following is probably missing some key cases. I put it together by perusing my volumes of the Nohlen, et al., data handbooks on Latin America and Africa, as well as some sources on Eastern Europe.*

    Country, Year, Turnout,Yes
    Chile, 1989, 93.9, 91.3
    Ecuador, 1978, 60.2, 58.1
    Malawi, 1993, 97.7, 64.7
    Mali, 1992, 98.2, 99.0
    Uruguay, 1980, 78.6, 42.1

What this means going forward, I do not know. Various reports said the pro-democracy forces were divided over whether the reforms went far enough to be worthy of a yes vote. However, I did not hear anything about an organized boycott. Yet the yes vote was fairly strong out of those who voted, while the turnout shockingly weak for a country supposedly in the process of a mass-instigated transition to democracy.

* I did not find any in Eastern Europe that took place prior to democratic elections. However, Poland’s referendum on its constitution in 1993 had a turnout on par with Egypt’s: 42.9. The yes vote was 53.5. Poland was already democratic by this point, having been governed under the interim Little Constitution.

Election order in emerging democracies

Marc Lynch:

I’m uneasy about the proposed Egyptian election schedule — I would prefer to see elections to a caretaker President first, then Constitutional reforms and finally Parliamentary elections — but I’m encouraged by the continuing forward momentum.

This seems like an odd preference to me. I can’t think of a single case anywhere in which there was a “caretaker” president elected as the first stage of a transition to elected government. In fact, I do not know if there could be such a thing as an elected president who was a mere caretaker. As soon as a president is elected, he is democratically legitimated, for better or worse. And constrained by what, if there is not yet a new constitutional framework–or even a legislature–in place?

It seems far better to elect a constituent assembly, which would also serve as an interim legislature, first. Or, as in some transitions, for the provisional (and thus still authoritarian) government to promulgate a new constitution (preferably with as wide a consultative process as possible), followed by legislative and, depending on the constitutional form, presidential elections. But electing only a president before a democratic constitution is in place seems suboptimal to me, as well as rare (if not unprecedented).

Libyan rebels call for airstrikes

This item, near the end of an Al Jazeera article on the pro-Gaddafi offensive against the rebel-held city of Marsa El Brega, surprised me:

Meanwhile, the rebel National Libyan Council in east Libya called for UN-backed air strikes on foreign mercenaries used by Gaddafi against his own people.

Hafiz Ghoga, a spokesman for the council based in Benghazi, told a news conference that Gaddafi was using “African mercenaries in Libyan cities” which amounted to an invasion of the oil producing North African nation.

“We call for specific attacks on strongholds of these mercenaries,” he said, but added: “The presence of any foreign forces on Libyan soil is strongly opposed. There is a big difference between this and strategic air strikes.”

Such a request would go a step or more beyond the previously requested imposition of a “no-fly zone.” However, even the latter operation would entail airstrikes and complex logistics, implying the operational distinction is not as great as it at first seems. Tactically, it would be a much bigger intervention, however. It would go beyond merely denying Gaddafi the means to use loyal air forces and entail destruction of fighting assets, and, obviously, significant casualties.

So my question for readers: is armed intervention (of what ever form) a good idea?

This is well beyond my field of specialization. But, for what it may be worth, part of me suspects the US and allies will end up intervening anyway. This regime and its maniacal leader are not going quietly, and there is a serious risk of a “failed state” situation. Such a result on the northern shores of the Mediterranean is, without exaggeration, a serious threat (shipping lanes, refugee flows, potential terrorism, etc.) that Europe and the US can’t abide. So is it better to intervene sooner than later?

Of course, there is another side of me that says foreign intervention can only make a bad situation worse.

I don’t know, but I am sure glad I don’t have to make the decision.

We’re all going to live together again

Al Jazeera* quotes a message it received from someone in Britain, commenting on a pro-Sharia demonstration outside the Libyan embassy:

We call them the nutters, because that’s what they are. We are Libyans. we are Muslims… but these people don’t want democracy or freedom. What do they want, dictatorship? We always lived together – Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Jews. And we’re all going to live together again.

It’s a nice sentiment. I do not know about Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but there was indeed a Jewish community in Libya. It was one of the oldest communities in the world. However, virtually all of them fled following pogroms in 1945 and 1948. Gaddafi was a shoolboy at that time. All but a tiny number of those Jews who remained after Libyan independence in 1951 were gone after another round of pogroms following the Six Day War. This was, of course, during the reign of the king whose flag now flies over the “liberated” parts of Libya.

While liberation of Libya from one of the worst tyrants of our time will be a good thing, it will not mean the return to a time of inter-communal harmony, which in any case is largely mythical.

For recent updates on Jewish communities that still exist in the Arab world, the always excellent Point of No Return is highly recommended.

* At its live blog on Libya, Feb. 25, 7:14 p.m. entry.