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The following interview by Selin Ongun with Associate Professor Dr. Ahmet Kasım Han appeared in the Cumhuriyet newspaper on 22 February 2016. Translated from Turkish by Tim Drayton

Even if the USA believed that the YPG was behind the explosion, it will not change its PYD policy

An interview with Associate Professor Dr. Ahmet Kasım Han by Selin Ongun

Associate Professor Dr. Ahmet Kasım Han, who lectures in International Relations at Kadir Has University, has voiced the view since 2009 that Turkey’s Syria policy is unsustainable. The following words, which Han heard from a politics academic close to the Assad regime while he was conducting field work in Syria in 2010, nowadays take on a new significance: “What are your lot trying to do along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia? Davutoğlu and Erdoğan come in through the front door and speak to Bashar, then go out the back door and speak to the Muslim Brotherhood. We are aware of this. You need to know the following. If the subject is war, we speak to Iran because they are our strategic allies. If it’s negotiations, we speak to France because they are close to us politically. If we speak of peace, we talk to America because they’re the only ones who can bring about peace. And, if the subject is trade, we talk to you. These are two-way relations between Bashar Assad and Tayyip Erdoğan and you shouldn’t read any more into it.”

The absence of Russia in this analysis from six years ago that Ahmet Han attributes to a Syrian academic is striking in showing that Syrians did not envisage Russia embarking on this kind of engagement in Syria, either.

Let us turn to the analysis by Associate Professor Dr. Ahmet Kasım Han, a member of the Turkish-born second generation of the Afghan royal family that came to our country in 1928.

- Turkey at the prime-ministerial and presidential level says that the suicide bomber in Ankara was beyond all doubt from the YPG. The USA is not saying this is so in the stark terms used by Turkey. Confirmation has yet to come from the USA that the perpetrator was from the YPG. What does this state of affairs tell us in terms of international diplomacy?

In international relations, credibility is at least as important as how powerful you are. The issue here has nothing to do with whether the evidence in our possession is sound or not. This state of affairs tells us that, unfortunately, Turkey’s international credibility has suffered very serious harm – that Turkey is no longer credible. The way to get Turkey out of this bind is to usher in political responsibility-price mechanisms.

- Can you give specific examples of this?

Reyhanlı, Diyarbakır, Suruç, Ankara railway station, Sultanahmet, the latest attack in Ankara, ... If Syria was the source of all of these explosions, there is no way we can claim that our way of dealing with Syria is positive and successful. You can’t follow correct policies and end up in such a wrong place. If you’re a decision maker with a political identity, for you to decline responsibility for the mistaken policies you have engaged in and evade paying the political price for the consequences erodes your credibility. If you do this for a long time, you lose your credibility - particularly if you lack vehicles for bending the truth and, if you are not a hegemonic power, you generally lack such things in the international arena. In this situation, you cannot become credible just by changing policies. Those on the other side will think you are making a tactical manoeuvre. This is the dead end we are in. It is clear that we have come from a point of no problems to one that could be described as nothing but problems. In a country whose internal and external peace is under threat, resignation is not a convention that should be passed over. An interesting point worth noting is that the most striking examples of the convention of resignation being exercised politically in Turkey have come from the armed forces. This is a paradox in our country in which continued recourse is made in political calculations to propaganda, regardless of whether it was valid in its day, around a “military guardianship” whose shelf life has clearly now ended. It may be worth those who peer out from the sham democracy remembering this once in a while.

- Which resignation from the Turkish armed forces do you think serves as an example of this?

Necip Torumtay. He resigned from the post of Chief of the General Staff in reaction to the 8th President Turgut Özal’s decision during the first Gulf War for the Mosul and Kirkuk issues to be solved through joint action with the USA. Torumtay said in his resignation note; “I am resigning because it appears impossible for me to continue to serve under the principles I believe in and my conception of the state.” He was the first chief of the general staff to resign without serving out his term. This means that resignation is possible.

- Does the AK Party need to produce a Necip Torumtay from its midst as the Syria policy unfolds?

Be there one, five or ten, they will not untie the Gordonian knot. What I mean is, even if we engage in new political manoeuvres, we will not achieve credibility. Turkey has in any case made these shifts over Syria.

- What were these?

Opening İncirlik and, with the Kobane issue, immediately permitting the peshmerga to pass through on 29 October. Moving from the “hot-headed kids of the Syrian civil war” discourse to “They are terrrorists.” These all bear testament to Turkey shifting its position on Syria. But, until you accept responsibility and pay the price, when you summon others to join ranks with you neither those on the inside nor the outside will give credence to your words. Now, to preserve credibility, you cling to a discourse that will consolidate your political power. And this will just split society even more fatally. In the final analysis, it will not preserve your credibility, either.

- So, to steer clear of the Syrian quagmire, do you think a “Necip Torumtay“ needs to emerge from the army?

I think the Turkish armed forces have by now made their preferences on this point abundantly clear. Leaving the political clamour to one side, I think the government is aware that Turkey cannot embark on this endeavour alone, without the support of the West, and particularly the USA. Even the Saudis are speaking of Western support and special forces only. If, from here on, pressure to “avoid the quagmire” comes from some direction, I have no idea what will and should happen. But, the formula is simple enough. Concede that the policy was wrong, accept political responsibility, pay the price, take control of the border and, come what may, steer clear of the Syrian quagmire. Whatever is called for, everybody should do it within the bounds of democracy.

- The million dollar question: If the USA became one hundred percent convinced that the YPG was behind the Ankara explosion, would the USA’s PYD policy change?

It would not. Even if it became absolutely convinced that the YPG was the culprit, it will not change its PYD policy.

- Why?

America’s preference is for solutions whereby ISIS is passivised and driven from the stage. As such, the black-white plus YPG hues that Russia wishes to see the Syrian theatre daubed in are hues that could also be to the Americans’ taste. The YPG-PYD enjoys “legitimate ally” treatment from the USA and Russia.

- A problem raises its head just here. Following Erdoğan and Obama’s telephone conversation, divergences emerged between the White House and Beştepe’s announcements. Beştepe proclaimed that Obama, “voiced concern over the advances made by the Syrian regime and the YPG in North-West Syria.” The White House, for its part, only made known “its concern over the advances made by the Syrian regime.” And the White House comment went on to state that Obama stressed the need for it to be prevented from gaining more ground by securing advantages for the YPG under the conditions in the region. How is one to account for these two diverging accounts originating from the White House and Beştepe?

These are important divergences. And these are probably both the result of the credibility deficit to which I have pointed and also serve to consolidate this deficit. I mean, the USA is neither persuaded by Turkey’s positions, nor does it confirm the comments made here. This is serious. More serious than it looks. Another important point in the announcements was the matter of “Turkey’s right to self-defence.” Great store is laid on the legitimacy of this. This right most certainly exists in international law - if you meet the conditions. And this is possible if you are attacked as per the UN Charter. But, the point is to convince the international community that you have come under attack. The reference in this regard in the US announcement is to NATO. This means that, for the USA, standing beside Turkey under such circumstances is of significance within the context of NATO. This is not protection that extends into Syrian territory. There exist serious divergences in positions and, even if the arguments used here find takers domestically, they have no serious external resonance.

- In the final analysis, how should Turkey reposition itself and what kind of new game and alliance should it enter into?

These questions are totally devoid of meaning just now.

- Why?

Turkey is no longer a mover and shaker in the Syrian theatre. You are finished and washed up. You are stuck between a bad choice and a very bad choice. The question as to what to do is unrelated to foreign policy just now. This may be excessively theoretical, but this is what it boils down to. The mentality of those here is to paint everything in black and white. And, on top of this, it forces everyone to choose. It portrays the world in terms of black and white, good and bad. You can’t operate foreign policy with such a mindset. This is no small matter - Syria today is the world’s most serious problem. The future of the entire world’s security architecture is being determined in Syria. We finally need to take stock of the fact that it is not about Assad going this week or next year! Assad is nothing in the Syrian equation. The Russians are quite capable of abandoning Assad tomorrow. Tomorrow! It is enough for the regime to remain on its feet and for them to keep control over the geographical space they have set their sights on. And for their presence in the Middle East as a major power to finally be accepted as legitimate. For them to be seen once again as a serious weight at the top table of international politics. For the pressure to be removed from them in matters relating to Ukraine and Crimea. Assad is the symbol of a “captive” regime, that’s all. There is no point in this environment to conducting an “Assad must go” policy. There can be no strategies fixated on a finished man and the past. You end up tilting at windmills and your strategic costs become sky high. That’s what has happened! Turkey can no longer afford just to position itself around its ”favoured“ opponents. With the future of those opponents looking doubtful to boot.

- What you are saying is, “Russia essentially is not battling against Turkey, it is negotiating with the West through Turkey.”

This is precisely the point. After Turkey downed the Russian plane, Russia has not spoken to Turkey at all. By turning Turkey into a subject in the game it is playing, it is endeavouring to consolidate its policy in Syria and exert influence over global politics. It gave a plane and, in return, gained room for manoeuvre against the USA, its principal rival. Russia is essentially saying in its negotiations with America, “We couldn‘t strike back against Turkey because it’s a NATO member. As a major country, being unable to strike back is a compromise. This compromise on our part calls for other compromises on your part to compensate.”

- The vital matter here is when, with regard to Syria, the USA will get actively involved in the process with a “knock-out” blow.

The answer to this depends to a major extent on the result of the pending US presidential election. This is also to a degree what our rulers here are waiting for. But, to what extent will the new US president take a position that is favourable towards Turkey’s policies? We don’t know. But, even if it is, America will never enter Syria with ground troops. If you see American ground troops in Syria, this means that we are in world war three. This is to nobody’s benefit.

- Even if there is a Republican president, there will be no American ground troops in Syria?

There will be no ground troops in Syria. Over and above special forces in Syria, an operation along the lines of Iraq or Afghanistan is not to be expected. The way things will pan out in eight months’ time if present trends continue to prevail, and there is nothing to suggest that they won’t, will see Russia consolidating its position in Syria. It would appear that there is a hidden agreement between the Obama administration and the Russians. This agreement takes the following form. The Americans are most categorically not objecting to the Russians turning the Syrian theatre into a black and white chess board. When the Syrian theatre is reduced to black and white, that is an ISIL-regime dichotomy, the Americans think they are capable in some form of coming to an understanding with the Russians over eliminating ISIL. This prevents them from being sucked into a quagmire in Syria. If they can retain their influence over the YPG, their political influence in the theatre will continue. This is an approach that is compatible with American vital interests. The fall of Raqqa, referred to as America’s knock-out blow in Syria, can quite simply only come after such consolidation. And this will most certainly take place within an agreement reached with the Russians. Sadly, we will see as spectators in the front row just how much consideration will be given in such an agreement to Turkey and its priorities.

- If there is no change to the general trend within eight months and the alliance between Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, the PYD and the regime grows firmer, will the USA not call an end to Iran and Russia’s halcyon days?

It doesn’t absolutely need to be this way at all. Syria in any case was Russia’s space for the duration of the cold war. For a USA that if nothing else is normalising its relations with Iran, this is an acceptable balance as long as Saudi Arabia maintains its stability and Egypt doesn’t collapse. Our mistake is that we act as though there is only us at the centre of the universe. The USA has other fish to fry apart from Syria.

- You have said that the Syria policy’s final destination is Pakistanisation. Precisely what are you getting at?

Turkey’s priority in Syria is for the latter country to be a country that does not export terror to it and is stable. While the next stage is to be able to trade with this country and to have easy access to the land on the other side. As such, Turkey’s business is to initiate solutions that will bring stability in human terms and in accordance with international law as soon as possible. Instead of this, Turkey has for some time kept its borders open for two-way traffic and turned itself into a buffer country between the jihadists and the West. Even worse, it had camps inside it: FSA camps. This is Pakistanisation. People were trained at the FSA camps and went to fight in Syria. This is Pakistanisation. Arms passed through our country to that country. This is Pakistanisation. I am not talking about the MİT trucks and so on. According to international news agencies, arms obtained from here and there passed through Jordan and Turkey.

- Are you saying that the time for the Pakistanisation warning has passed and we have Pakistanised?

We have Pakistanised but certain moves have to an extent kept the process towards this in check. After ISIL occupied the Turkish consulate in Mosul, bombs went off in Turkey and İncirlik was opened, we started to act more sensitively, especially with regard to the porosity of the border. And the camps used by the FSA or other camps have apparently been closed. But we still do not know the meaning of the Ministry of Interior Circular number 62 and what is in the camps housing Syrians along the belt defined in the circular. But the current picture shows that there has been a significant improvement as far as these camps in Turkey go. But Pakistanisation continues in the sense that cells of ISIL and similar groups continue to be hosted in Syria. These would appear to be groups that commit and may commit acts in Turkey. We are housing a significant number of refugees and a fair portion of them are unregistered. This, according to the Pakistani authorities, was their most serious mistake and it cost them dear. The foreign fighters in Syria used Turkey to get into Syria and will probably use Turkey to get out of Syria and, what’s more, a portion of them will even stay in Turkey. There are still serious security risks here. Then the relationship of sympathy continues for groups with guns in their hands on the other side of the border. This returned to Pakistan in the form of the Pakistan Taliban. Security, without exception or favour, on the border is called for.

- Has its approach to Syria threatened the AK Party’s very existence?

Syria has become an issue that will also to an extent determine the AKP’s future, due to the latter’s refusal to pay the price. It was not an issue of this nature when it first emerged. But they went and invested so much political capital here. Syria is the pit of Hell. They kept on throwing in more and more. But whatever they threw in, Syria swallowed it up. If you use foreign policy to shore up your domestic policies, sooner or later everything in foreign policy comes back to you as a price to be paid in domestic policy terms. Those prices have kept on mounting up and it has left you unable to move. The moment you change your Turkmen policies and your PYD rhetoric, then bingo - you place all of your nationalist vote at risk! In a setting in which the move is mooted from Presidency of the Republic to man at the top it is hard to find anybody willing to pay this price!

Archive of Turkish press translations by Tim Drayton