ORSAM: First of all can you please introduce yourself?
My name is Magdalena Kirchner, I’m a doctoral candidate from the Institute for Political Science at the University of Heidelberg, where I studied History and Political Science. During my undergraduate and graduate studies, I was particularly interested in questions of political violence and conflicts, foreign and security policy, especially in the Middle East region. In my PhD project, which deals with the alliances between states and non-state actors that employ terrorist methods against their mutual opponents, I combine both questions of terrorism research and foreign policy analysis. Additionally, I am a researcher in the Working Group "Conflicts in the Middle East and Maghreb" of the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research. Apart from the Middle East, I’m also interested in general questions of international security, which is the reason why I established the Heidelberg Forum for international Security in 2009 as a interdisciplinary working group of young academics organizing workshops and conferences on current trends in international relations. Finally, I’m editorial journalist for the “Security Policy Reader”, published by the German Armed Forces.
What is the purpose of your visit in Turkey and your reason of preferring ORSAM?
In the first half of 2012, I left Heidelberg for a six-month research stay in Israel and Ankara to conduct interviews with experts, explore university libraries and discover a new academic and professional environment in the field of Middle Eastern Studies. I chose ORSAM as one of my host institutions as I was looking for a think tank with a particular Middle East profile, yet following an academic approach in their research projects and policy analyses.
You have also conducted research in Israel, what can you say about that experience? How do you see the state of Turkish-Israeli relations as a foreigner?
To answer the first question, I need to distinguish between my academic experience and my personal observations. For my studies, Israel and especially the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies were an almost perfect research environment in terms of expertise, interest and resources. In Germany, Middle East Studies are still a very small subfield of political science, so I enjoyed the many lectures, discussions and conversations with well-known experts and fellow researchers. Especially from a German perspective, which perceives Israel as a very homogeneous country, it was very exciting for me to get to know not only all parts of Israel and Palestine and parties of this conflict, but also to discover the diversities and dynamics of the Israeli society.
My perception of the state of Turkish-Israeli relations is also ambiguous. From a strategic perspective, both parties value the other as a partner, especially in these turbulent times. Turkey and Israel share many interests and concerns and can gain the most from cooperation. This is why I was personally relieved to see that bilateral academic relations for example are still cordial and fruitful and that my previous visits to Israel never negatively influenced my conversations in Turkey. Nevertheless, I don’t want to downplay the current tensions as superficial and merely related to single political events. The end of the cold war gave both Israel and Turkey an opportunity to increase their regional status and set the frame for the strategic, political, and economical rivalry that we see now. Furthermore, societal relations have worsened due to recent events and domestic pressure seems higher for steadfastness than for reconciliation.In my opinion, the crisis will not be terminated by an Israeli apology for the Flotilla but by a rediscovery of mutual interests in the region.
What are your impressions regarding the way the Middle Eastern affairs are approached and studied in Turkey? How can you compare it to Germany?
What German and Turkish studies of the Middle East have in common is a rather historical approach, in both cases related to the Ottoman Empire (in the latter to the Empire’s good relations with the German Empire). Traditionally, both academic communities perceive themselves as external observers to regional dynamics. But whereas I would call this a rather natural approach for Central European Germans, who share little if at all cultural or historical features with the Arab world, it impeded in my opinion Turkish scholarship from tapping its full potential for decades. Only in recent years, parallel to the political return of Turkey to the Middle East, Turkish scholars take more and more the opportunity to conduct research in neighboring countries, learn their languages and rediscover epistemological similarities. As I had the opportunity to meet several representatives of this new generation of Turkish Middle East scholars, I’m highly optimistic in this regard.
How is Turkey seen from German academic circles?
Turkish Studies at German universities are generally strongly related to Ottoman and Middle East Studies and focus on the study of Turkish language and literature. Turkey’s impressive rise as an economic and political power in the last decade attracted also more scholarship in political science and international relations. Both political and academic discourses on Turkey are dominated by the fact that more than 1.6 million Turkish citizens live in Germany, many of them for several decades. Therefore, nearly all of the domestic issues and tensions in Turkey since 1970 are reflected in the German-Turkish society and subsequently influence the academic debates about Turkey as well. As more and more young Germans with Turkish roots visit universities and take actively part in research and debates about Turkey instead of being mere objects of integration studies, I’m curious whether we will observe a process of normalization or further polarization of scholarship on Turkey.
In your opinion, what are the most important determinants of Syrian foreign policy during the Assad rule? How can we explain recent changes?
In a state like Assad-Syria, with a government that lacks the legitimacy of popular vote and rules by force over a heterogenic and non-cohesive society, domestic dynamics and especially the goal of the regime to remain in power should never be underestimated. The creation of an equilibrium between political institutions (e.g. Army and Ba’ath Party), as well as the many ethnic and confessional groups is (or has been so far) the life-guarantee for the Assad rule and its persistence has been, in my opinion, the driving force behind all governmental policies. For Syria, it’s impossible to separate for example their conflict with Israel, including the occupied Golan Heights and the question of the Palestinian refugees, from the self-proclaimed legitimacy of the regime as the (last) champion of steadfastness.
Changes in the Syrian foreign policy of the last two decades – especially the rapprochement with Turkey in the late 1990s despite historical enmity and Ankara’s then close ties with Israel – should also be seen by the need of the regime to compensate the loss of the Soviet Union as an external source of arms and economic investment. To create at least stable state-society relations, repression of dissent is a much costlier strategy than coopting power bases like the military or the business class. In a situation where the organizational interests of the military (keeping expenditures high without being dragged in conflict with Turkey, which would inevitably result in an embarrassing defeat) coincided with the business elite’s preferences (attracting foreign investment and technical assistance to exploit natural resources), a country that was seen as a national threat can become a helpful ally in securing regime survival – and somewhat serving the “national interest”. If this flow of external resources is drying out – like we can observe in the recent crisis – external relations are quickly reevaluated.
What roles are the domestic dynamics such as intra-regime rivalries playing in the uprising process? What are the domestic factors that cause the delay for the regime change in Syria?
Personally, I don’t see significant intra-regime rivalries at work in the uprising process as no pillar of the regime broke away so far. In my opinion, it is an “uprising of outsiders” – of boththose who fundamentally oppose the current regime for decades and those whose socioeconomic position deteriorated substantially in the last five years, due to a reduction in public employment and subsidies as well as a dramatic drought. Besides the effective infiltration of the security forces and political apparatus with loyal security services, which prevented an Egyptian-like coup or large-scale defections like in Libya, it’s the lack of leadership among the opposition and thus the uncertainty for the old elites fearing revenge and chaos.
What do you think about the way Syrian politics is approached in Turkey, what do you think are the lacking points? Do you see Turkish foreign policy towards Syria as a failure, which was derived from the lack of consideration or knowledge regarding the domestic dynamics in Syria? Or what are other dynamics in Syrian policy making that are ignored by Turkish decisionmakers?
As too little is known yet about the motives of Turkey’s foreign policy conduct in the Syrian crisis and the outcome of it, I would say it’s too soon to talk about failure or success.
In my opinion, however, the Arab Uprisings shook the “zero problems”-approach to its very core. Firstly, domestic unrest and repression made it difficult to sustain economically beneficial relations with political leaders like Gaddafi and Assad without facing substantial criticism from the international and Turkish society. Secondly, given the success of the Tunisian, Libyan, and Egyptian Revolution, some foreign policy makers reasoned that what “zero problems” had ignored – the domestic characteristics of those countries Turkey had relations with – could be an easier road to political success. As much as nearly all other countries outside the Middle East, Turkey underestimated the regime securing methods that the regime led by Bashar al-Assad had employed for decades to neutralize what looked like a balance of power favorable to its challengers on the first glance. Ankara further overestimated its own role as a power broker in the region – like the Arab League –by undertaking the impossible mission to mediate between the government and the opposition. The third miscalculation – this time a particular Turkish one was the underestimation of its own vulnerability – not only to cross border and Jet-shootings – but to spillover effects from the Syrian into Turkish domestic conflicts.
Do you think the Syrian uprising and the deteriorated relations between turkey and Syria caused any change in the way turkey- politicians, media or academics approach Syria? Did they come to know -what Syria is- more?
Honestly saying, my impression is that the crisis assured those in Turkish media and politics who see Ankara already as a regional quasi-hegemon, who is in charge of creating stability, peace and prosperity in the other countries. Initially, it was tried by integrating Assad, now by supporting regime change in Syria. Nearly all my interview partners concluded that the heavy involvement of Turkey in the Syrian crisis marks an unprecedented shift in Turkish foreign policy conduct. Concerning Turkish academia, I think it is especially the obviously unexpected robustnessof the regime that will probably encourage more scholarship on regime securing methods like coup-proofing and the non-Sunni Arab minorities in Syria and Lebanon, especially on the Syrian Kurds.
What can you say about Syria’s perspective of Turkey?
Due to the authoritarian character of the regime, access to the considerations and perceptions of Modern Syriawas never easy. Generally, one should keep in mind that many narratives of the young Syrian national history are explicitly anti-Turkish, for example Pan-Arabism and the loss of Hatay. Thus, even at times of cordial relations (in the first decade of the 21st century), fears of Turkish political and economic predominance (the so called “Neo-Ottomanism”) and concerns that Syria would again become a mere province, persisted. This view is particularly widespread among the non-Sunni minorities and the Kurds. On the other hand, any future Syrian regime will have to rely on Turkey, for the political and economical reconstruction of the state. Whether a predominantly Sunni government will not try to balance this dominance remains to be seen.
In your opinion what is the most likely scenario for the course of the events and for post-asad Syria?
What we have learnt from the Syrian crisis is that predictions should not be made too quickly. Until today, several politicians and oppositional figures have announced the “endgame” and the regime’s final hours, days or months. I think the parallels to the Iraqi case are obvious, especially as there is an open discussion now between Washington and Ankara about a No-Fly Zone in Syria. Spillover effects that we already see in Turkey and Lebanon are likely to increase and also reach the other neighbors. I could imagine that the collapse of the central authority, which we already see in its beginnings these days, will further encourage traditional separatist sentiments among the country’s compact minorities Kurds, Druze and Alawites. Whether post-Assad Syria will become a stable federal state, starting point of a Balkanization in the Middle East or a Civil War area depends heavily on the strategy of the opposition, and those countries supporting it, towards the minorities and the old elites.
How do you see the Syrian National Council, which is highly divided? And how do you see the state of Syrian Kurdish opposition considering the relations between Turkey-Kurdish Regional Government, especially Barzani and the latest developments?
From a democratic perspective, I see it as highly problematic that the composition of the Council is not related to any election process neither inside nor outside Syria.To be fair, under the given conditions, this might be the best the Syrians hoping for regime change can get and the SNC managed to become the internationally mostly unchallenged leader of the rebellion. In contrast to their Libyan, Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts, however, the SNC members have no experience in running political affairs and former regime figures like the President’s uncle Rifaat are too unpopular (for good reason) to be credible leaders. Maybe the recent defections of high-rankinggovernment and military officials like ManafTlass or Riad Hijab are likely to change this. As I mentioned earlier, the uprising is composed of highly diverse groups, aiming at different political, social, and economic goals. This is reflected nearly unfiltered by the SNC but who will reunite them and reconcile the Syrian society? The internal fragmentation and fragility of the SNC is, in my opinion, also a major problem for the international community in its current and future conflict management.
Though many experts talked about a Syrian Kurdish awakening already in 2004, in the course of the so called Qamishli Revolts, neither the SNC nor Turkey as the state with the biggest interest in the issue managed to divert the attention of Syria’s Kurds away from ethno nationalist – and at times even separatist - aims and unite them against Damascus. Also as a result of their own division, the Kurds remained as a group on the sidelines of the revolt for a long time. The withdrawal and likely collapse of central authority in Kurdish populated areas could now create a political and military vacuum comparable to Iraq in the 1990s and lead the way to Kurdish autonomy in Syria’s north. One doesn’t need much imagination to estimate that this is highly incompatible with Turkey’s security interests and expectations for a post-Assad Syria. One instrument that Turkey wanted to use to reduce Kurdish assertiveness and hostility is its recently established friendship with KRG President Massoud Barzani. Nevertheless, I would assume that this relation carries significant risk for both and any escalation between Turkey (or the SNC) and the PYD or other pro-autonomy and especially PKK-affiliated groups, which I see as inevitable, is likely to put Barzani under heavy domestic pressure and limit his influence over the Syrian Kurds.
How do you evaluate Turkey’s strategy for the uprising process? And what do you think can Turkey do for the rest of the process?
As I said before, Ankara’s approach to the crisis was far from flawless, but in contrast to most Western countries, Turkey as a neighboring country could not remain inactive given the regional repercussions of the crisis and repeat the mantra “Syria is not Libya”. Any answer to the question, whether the other states pushed Turkey to the front or Ankara saw a chance for regional predominance, would be pure speculation at this point. Nevertheless, it is a fact that Turkey has become a direct actor in the crisis but needs to step up its efforts now if it doesn’t want to pay an even higher price for its involvement. In my opinion, this requiresespecially pressure on the SNC to overcome internal divisions, the containment of radical and revisionist forces (both on the winning and the loosing side of the conflict), and the quick reconstruction of state and economic structures in post-Syria, to avoid a humanitarian refugee crisis inside Turkey and fragility in economically vital border regions.
Thanks for sharing your views.
* This interview was conducted by ORSAM Middle East Research Assistant Selen Tonkuş in Ankara on August 13, 2012.