Things are getting uglier in Syria

After four days of marathon negotiations, the different Syrian opposition groups have finally agreed to form a united front against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. A moderate Islamic cleric, Maath al-Khatib, has been elected president of the coalition. This is a minor achievement for Qatar and the United States, which, along with many others, have been pushing the fragmented Syrian opposition to get its acts together. One wonders, however, if this is a tad too late.

When the Arab Spring began in Tunisia last year, the international community anticipated an awesome Arab version of the velvet revolutions of the late 1980s. The turn of events, however, proved to be a disappointing regression from good to ugly: The protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, while relatively peaceful, took longer than usual, with the military and, eventually, the Islamist hi-jacking the gains of the revolution. The protests in Libya, on the other hand, resulted in a bloody civil war that almost left the country in tatters. Syria, so far, has been the ugliest episode: Almost two years after the initial pro-democracy protests, the country is still in a protracted civil war, at times threatening to explode into a wider, regional conflict.

There’s one important difference between Libya and Syria. The erstwhile autocratic regime in Tripoli had generally been isolated, which made it easy to mobilize international support for an American-led multilateral intervention in support of the Libyan uprising. In contrast, Syria sits at an important geopolitical crossroads, and how things end in Damascus would affect the interests of major regional powers like, among others, Iran, Turkey, and Russia.

President Assad’s regime is a reliable ally of the Iranian theocracy. Despite his Arab nationalism, the Syrian dictator’s father had sided with Tehran in the Iran-Iraq War, and Damascus has been helping the Iranians smuggle arms to their Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. In return, the ayatollahs in Tehran are lending their all-out support to the embattled Assad regime, thereby fueling the Syrian armed forces, which the dictator has unleashed on his own people. Undoubtedly, the ayatollahs see the Syrian uprising as a proxy war between the Islamic Republic and the Israeli-American axis.

Turkey’s interest, on the other hand, is to preserve Syrian stability. Syria’s unraveling could complicate Ankara’s main source of insecurity, the Kurdish insurrection in the Turkish south. Ankara fears that a power vacuum in Damascus could lead to the creation of an autonomous Kurdish entity in the Syrian north, which could in turn coalesce with the Kurdish nationalists in Iraq. This could embolden the Iraqi Kurdistan to secede from the currently very weak Iraqi state, absorb the Syrian Kurds, and eventually form a Greater Kurdistan, which would of course be an existential threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity.

Taking his “zero-problems” (with Turkey’s neighbors) policy to heart, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had pursued friendly ties with President Assad in the last few years. It was Ankara’s overtures that revived President Assad’s international legitimacy, which had been greatly diminished by the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. When massive pro-democracy protests broke out last year, Ankara initially supported President Assad, but eventually changed course when his regime embarked on a bloody crackdown. Prime Minister Erdogan has since realized that supporting the Syrian dictator would cost Turkey the political capital that he has been patiently cultivating in the Middle East. Turkey is now among those supporting the Syrian opposition, although it’s apparently bent on managing the pace of the civil war.

As for Russia, it maintains its only overseas military base in Syria, and would naturally have the incentive to oppose, or water down, any anti-Assad resolution in the United Nations Security Council. This makes any multilateral intervention difficult, since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has repeatedly ruled out imposing a similar aerial embargo that it had imposed on Libya last year, unless the United Nations endorses it.

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition had been hopelessly fragmented. The Turkey-based Syrian National Council tried to pose as the representative of the Syrian opposition in the international community, but its leaders have been living in exile for years and are arguably out of touch with what’s happening on the ground. As a result, Al Qaeda-linked Islamic extremist groups has stepped in to fill the vacuum in the Syrian opposition, raising alarm bells among many observers.

Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist group composed of Syrian extremists and mujaheddins from all over the Muslim world, has been leading the charges against President Assad’s forces, according to reports by the Washington Post. The core of this group is said to be President Assad’s own Frankenstein: Syria has cultivated an Islamist terrorist network that Damascus unleashed on American and Israeli interests in the Middle East and the anti-Syria political opposition in Lebanon; and now, these same Sunni terrorists are going after the Assad regime, which, for them, represents Shiite heresy.

Allegedly supported by leading Arab powers like Saudi Arabia, Al Nusra has reportedly recruited an impressive corps of multinational fighters. The last time mujaheddins of different nationalities have been seen fighting together was during the American-supported Islamist resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1980s. And as the secular Free Syrian Army suffers from declining ammunition due to lack of Western support, many opposition fighters have desperately turned to Al Nusra, giving the jihadists a significant amount of popular support.

It’s in this context that the United States, the European Union, Qatar, and Turkey have pressured Syrian opposition groups to get their acts together. And now that they finally have, the ball has returned to these Western powers’ court; they must now act decisively. The prospect of an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist regime taking over Damascus and its massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons has infinitely raised the stakes.

Turkey, militarism, religion and modernity

There’s an interesting political drama happening in Turkey right now. The entire military command has resigned en masse.

General Isik Kosanar, the military chief, and the respective heads of the Turkish army, navy and air force tendered their resignations Friday, apparently in protest against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on around forty generals and military officers being suspected of involvement in an alleged coup plot called Oplan Sledgehammer. Supposedly, the plot calls for bombings of mosques and increasing tensions with Greece in order to create political chaos, which would justify a military take-over. One of the generals, an ex-army chief, has allegedly ordered his subordinates to run anti-government websites.

To appreciate the significance of this development, we have to understand that Turkey is a nation still smarting from a long tradition of militarism. In the past century, the Turkish people had repeatedly turned to the military to intervene in times of great political instability. There had been coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980. And while military rule has long been replaced by constitutional democracy, the military has managed to maintain its clout and continue to be a political actor, almost always in the name of protecting the state ideology enunciated by the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, called Kemalism by students of Turkish politics, which strongly emphasizes the Republic’s strong secularist tradition, against the rise of Islamism. In 1997, for instance, the military maneuvered to have an Islamist prime minister removed from office.

The legacy of militarism is always a problem for young democracies still struggling to develop their impersonal institutions as a way to achieve a stable polity. Some sociologist and political scientists consider this development of institutions as part of the transition to modernity; with modern political society being defined as one where laws and institutions, as opposed to personalities and traditions, rule. In Thailand, for instance, the elite and the Royal court often turn to the military to protect the state against what they perceive as threats, like Thaksinian populism’s pandering to the “illiterate” rural poor. In the Philippines, military adventurism remains a dangerous legacy of the Marcos dictatorship, exacerbated by the civilian leadership’s inability to punish military adventurers and, bewilderingly, the rewarding of the coup plotters with Senate seats. In Latin America, militarism has created banana republics still hypnotized by caudillismo.

Perhaps realizing that Turkey is not an exception to this problem, Prime Minister Erdogan’s  Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been very vigorous in confronting the legacy of Turkey’s militarist past. Last year, for instance, Erdogan led a successful ‘Yes’ campaign in a referendum to amend the Turkish Constitution. Some of the amendments nullified provisions that had long reinforced the military’s political clout, including one that gave military officers involved in the 1980 coup permanent immunity from criminal prosecution.

Clearly, therefore, what we are seeing in Turkey is part of a political struggle between the military clique desperately trying to protect its place in the nation’s polity on one hand, and  the AKP-led civilian government trying to change the political configuration on the other hand. It appears that the current goal of the AKP is to buttress constitutionalism by upholding the primacy of civilian rule.

Of course, it takes greater knowledge of the nuances of Turkish politics to know whether the AKP has succeeded– or is succeeding– in supplanting the military’s influence; but from what we see in the news, it would seem that the old guards of the Turkish armed forces are being outmaneuvered by Erdogan’s political acumen. The mass resignations succeeded only in melodrama; but in the end, it shows that the military old guards are running out of options.  The civilian leadership merely replaced the military leadership with Erdogan’s choices, and the prosecution of the generals and officers allegedly involved in the supposed coup plot will still continue. If this is the case, then we can say that, from the perspective of completing the transition to political modernity, perhaps Turkey is finally coming of age. Indeed, civilian primacy over the army is one step towards the harmonization of Turkish politics with Western political values, which is an important requirement for membership in the European Union, for which Ankara aspires.

But for others, this struggle may also be framed as a larger, more profound battle for Turkey’s political soul between Kemalist secularism and Islamism. And from the perspective of many of us, it would be dangerous for Islamism to gain an upper hand in a country as politically important as Turkey. This is because we almost always tend to associate Islamism with Islamic fundamentalism.

Of course, for many years, religion had been one of the biggest threats to secularism and democracy. This is why most staunch secularists are, quite understandably, wary of any ideals that are grounded on religious beliefs. But in trying to associate all religious ideals with religious fundamentalism, staunch secularists become fundamentalists themselves. And, as we are seeing in France, secular fundamentalism can be as oppressive to liberty as religious fundamentalism.

In reality, religious ideals don’t necessarily contradict respect for healthy secularism and democratic traditions. This is the gist of many of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals, where he often argues that Western secularism shoud let religions have reasonable space to allow them to play their own roles in society. The rise of Islamism in Turkey, as respected sociologist Randy David had argued last year, “is a development that is not adequately captured by simplistic labels like Islamic fundamentalism.”

“Over the years, [Turkey’s] strict secularist policy has given way to a more liberal practice that allows reasonable space for the practice of religion and the manifestation of Islamic faith and identity in various spheres of social life. This has come about partly as a result of the growing influence of Islamic ideas in the formulation of a vision for modern Turkey, but largely as an outcome of the renewed confidence that Islam is giving to its adherents in a globalized world,” wrote David. In this context, perhaps we can say that Turkish society is ahead of its Western counterparts.

So, is the AKP trying to supplant secularims with Islamism, or is it merely trying to let Islamic ideas influence Turkey’s transition to over-all modernity? Indeed, can Islamism co-exist with secular democracy? By following the developments in this intriguing moment in Turkey’s political history, we may soon find out.

If you like what you read here, you will definitely like The Observers, a group blog on politics, society, history, and international affairs. The Nutbox has moved to the said website.