Turkish Travels II: The Syrian conundrum

Erdogan's decisions in the coming months will have a profound impact on the region -- Israel included

“The oppressed become the oppressors. That is what has happened here, that is what is happening in Syria; Rwanda too, and Palestine…”

It’s been an hour since I met Uğur (not his real name), an aspiring graphic designer in his mid-30s, and he’s already on tea number four. We’ve been locked in political conversation at the local cafe ever since we were introduced to one another by a mutual friend. Even though we’ve been jumping from issue to issue, the question of Turkey’s recent grudge against Syria featured prominently in our conversation, with brief forays into “religious-secular” and “Turk-Kurd” tangents.

The bodies of Turkish Air Force pilots Cpt. Gökhan Ertan and Lt. Hasan Hüseyin Aksoy, whose F-4 Phantom jet was shot down by the Syrian military on June 22nd, have recently been discovered in the depths of the Eastern Mediterranean. Their final flight, and the subsequent saber-rattling by Turkish politicians, was the topic of conversation in every kahvehane (coffeeshop), classroom, and street corner in the weeks following the incident. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was particularly adamant, warning that “Turkey’s friendship is valuable, but everyone should know Turkey’s wrath is equally furious.”

Turkey’s leading man is known for his emotional tirades (see: Davos 2009), yet what is perceived as a weakness by many in the West happens to be his strongest trait domestically, separating him from a prosaic list of competitors. Not surprisingly, Erdogan has been one of the most vocal advocates for international intervention since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011.

And what of the Turkish public? How did the deaths of Cpt. Ertan and Lt. Aksoy affect receptiveness to potential unilateral action against Syria, and what does it say about how Turks perceive the military?

Uğur, like all males in Turkey, completed his mandatory six-month service in the military. In his words, and in the words of everyone I have asked thus far, the Turkish military experience is “one month of training, and five months of boredom.” Although a universal draft exists, few become career soldiers, and fewer experience the troubled southeastern region where, over the past three decades, many Turks have died at the hands of the Kurdish PKK.

Public opinion polls taken in the weeks after the jet was downed indicate that the majority of Turks (anywhere from 59.9 to 76.4 percent, depending on the source) oppose the country’s participation in any future Syrian intervention, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the financial cost of war would undoubtedly halt Turkey’s unprecedented economic growth over the last decade, and there is little reason to believe that a deadly, protracted conflict wouldn’t damage the image that Erdoğan and the AKP spent years constructing in the region.

Turkey's leading man is known for his emotional tirades. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Turkey’s leading man is known for his emotional tirades. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Erdoğan image via Shutterstock)

Syria presents two distinct conundrums for Erdoğan: If he chooses to involve Turkey in Syria’s civil war, he will be able to control the aftermath of Assad’s fall, particularly the future of Syria’s – and by extension his own – Kurdish population. In that case, Erdoğan would be reliant on the judgment of a Turkish military whose leadership has been prosecuted and put on trial under suspicion of plotting to overthrow the AKP government. The military would likely enjoy reducing his domestic support and air of invincibility.

Policy experts are not the only ones bandying about these scenarios. In a country with a passion for conspiracies, there is no shortage of theories – from left and right – regarding Turkey’s true objectives.

“Intervention in Syria would be tragic,” continues Uğur, who’s growing increasingly frustrated with the conversation. “I don’t know what is real and what is not. We don’t want Turkey to be manipulated by the West. Who is to say that Assad is not trying to create change? Who is to say that our plane was not purposefully sent into Syrian airspace?”

Uğur is not alone in this sentiment. As of today, significant information regarding the jet’s downing has been withheld from a Turkish public that is accustomed to suspecting foul play regardless of the level of government transparency.

Erdoğan’s decisions in the coming months will have a profound impact on the region — Israel included — but there are valuable lessons Israelis can learn from the relationship between the Turkish military and its people. Where once the military played a central role in society, Turks can now be nationalists, liberals, or skeptics without having known anyone who fell in combat. Uğur is never going to see the battlefield. War has become distant, foreign, and increasingly impersonal.

In Israel, however, thousands of citizens are called up for reserve duty long after completing their mandatory three-year service. The IDF is the weaver’s loom upon which Israel’s social fabric is tightened and adjusted. It is where boys and girls become men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. Can we imagine an Israel with a professional army? Where the conflict felt far from home? While that has been the dream of many, those whose tired eyes scan the dusty hills of Sinai and the windswept Golan Heights often see national service as the thing that inspires the passion and creativity of the Israeli people. It defines our democratic relationship with the state, and our citizen army. Hopefully we can use these traits in order to establish a new social contract between all who live in our land, so that we can face fresh challenges together, as a people.

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Editor’s note: Over the coming weeks, Gabriel Mitchell will be writing a series of articles about his stay in Turkey in which he hopes to address questions relating to modern Turkish culture, society, and politics.

About the Author
Gabriel Mitchell is a PhD candidate in Government & International Affairs at Virginia Tech University and the Israel-Turkey Project Coordinator at Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Born in the United States, Gabriel moved to Israel in 2005. He writes regularly about events in Turkey and Israel and has been published in a number of newspapers and journals, including The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The New Republic, The American Interest, Hürriyet Daily News, Turkish Policy Quarterly, and The Washington Review of Turkish & Eurasian Affairs. Gabriel holds an MA in Political Science from Hebrew University and BA in European and Middle Eastern History from The Ohio State University.