Turkey Must Learn from Pakistan

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Turkey Must Learn from Pakistan

It was just 30 years ago that Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents were active in large numbers in the borderland between Pakistan and Afghanistan training the mujaheddin to fight the Soviet-supported Marxist regime in Afghanistan as well as supplying them with arms and ammunition. These weapons, mostly American and paid for by the Saudis and the oil-rich Gulf monarchies, were being smuggled into Afghanistan to help build the military arsenal of the anti-regime rebels. Pakistan under the rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq acted as the willing conduit for this transaction, both to curry favor with the US and Saudi Arabia and because it received a portion of the arms as its share.

At the same time, reports surfaced that groups of transnational fighters from around the Muslim world imbued with a militant and ultra-conservative Islamist ideology, often attracted by Saudi largesse, were beginning to reach the Pakistan-Afghanistan border with the connivance of the CIA and the Pakistani government. News also began to surface that the presence of Saudi money and a militant Salafist ideology were beginning to have a major negative impact on Pakistani society, including the rise of anti-Shia sectarianism and of the takfiri tendency, whose adherents proclaim those Muslims who did not agree with their interpretation of Islam as infidels.

Parallels between Syria and Afghanistan

The process that began in Pakistan in the early 1980s has today turned that country into a near-failed state and the primary base for terrorists of all kinds. Terrorist groups created by the Pakistani military intelligence to attack Afghan and later Indian targets have now turned against the Pakistani state itself, creating mayhem in the country. Border regions in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) controlled by these groups have become the base for continued terrorist attacks against Afghanistan. This has resulted in American reprisals in the form of drone attacks on suspected terrorist bases that have killed hundreds of civilians. Such attacks have drastically undermined the sovereignty of the Pakistani state and diminished the credibility of its civilian government both at home and abroad.

What is happening on Turkey’s borders with Syria today seems to be eerily similar to what was happening on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan in the early 1980s. According to The New York Times, CIA operatives are engaged in funneling arms, including anti-tank weaponry, to Syrian rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime. These arms are paid for by the Saudi and Qatari regimes, with the Turkish government acting as the conduit for the supply of weapons to Syrian rebel groups. The CIA operatives also seem to be engaged in recruiting people to the anti-Assad cause. It is impossible to imagine that the Saudi ideology will not closely follow the Saudi money into the Turkish borderlands as it did into the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the 1980s. Moreover, as the rebellion grinds on, there are reports that homegrown Syrian jihadis and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are taking on an increasing role in the fight against the Assad regime.

Probably most importantly, Turkey’s active support of the anti-Assad rebels has widened the sectarian divide in the country between the majority Sunnis, who support the predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels, and the minority Alevis, who express sympathy for the Alawite-dominated Assad regime. Although the Turkish Alevis and Syrian Alawites are very different in their beliefs, the similarity in nomenclature tends to hide this fact even from many Alevis in Turkey. Moreover, the Turkish Alevis, who are apprehensive of the Sunni majority that they identify with the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), sympathize with the similar dilemma faced by the minority Alawites in Syria in the face of a predominantly Sunni rebellion.

The presence of the Saudi factor in this combustible mix in southeastern Turkey where the Alevis (and incidentally the restive Kurds, some of whom are Alevis as well) are concentrated next door to Syria can easily turn this emerging Sunni-Alevi rift over Ankara’s policies toward Syria into a sectarian conflagration à la Pakistan where thanks to the influence of Saudi ideology, Pakistani Shias are routinely attacked and killed. Turkey, mired in its own conflict with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), cannot afford another major security problem in southeastern Turkey.

Foreign policy calculations

It is convenient for Saudi Arabia to present the struggle for Syria as a Sunni-Shia conflict because of Iran’s support for the Assad regime. It helps to consolidate support for Riyadh among the majority Sunnis in the Arab world against its Persian-Shia rival. The danger is that Turkey may become the new battleground for this proxy war, as Pakistan has been for three decades, thus destabilizing the country and undermining its fledgling democracy. Additionally, it has negatively impacted Turkey’s relations with Iran, a major energy supplier to Turkey and a pivotal power in the Middle East. Good relations between Ankara and Tehran are essential to guarantee stability in the Middle East and to keep the intervention of external powers to a minimum.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu are very intelligent people, and the latter has a profound understanding of history. They should realize before it is too late that what happened in Pakistan in the 1980s may happen in their country unless they quickly rein in Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and not allow their personal antipathy toward Assad to become the primary force driving Turkey’s Syrian policy. In the final analysis, the Americans and the Saudis will go home, leaving Turkey to pick up the pieces. They are more than likely to leave a mess behind — both domestically and regionally — as they did in Afghanistan that Turkey may find extremely difficult to clear.

It may be too late already for Turkey to pull back fully from its involvement in the Syrian imbroglio. But at the very least, its leadership should be fully aware of the dangers that await Turkey as a result of its participation in this extremely complex conflict which involves not merely domestic players but regional and global actors as well. These latter have their own interests at heart. It is evident that the Saudi support for the Syrian rebels is motivated not by Riyadh’s commitment to democracy, a nonexistent value in Saudi calculations, but by its animus toward regional rival Iran which is closely allied to the Assad regime.

The American support for the Syrian opposition is also designed to denude Iran of a major Arab ally, thus reducing its influence in the Middle East and further consolidating Israel’s domination of the region. Furthermore, American policy makers will be secretly delighted if, in the process of regime change in Syria, the Russians lose their only military base in Tartus, Syria, outside the former Soviet territories. These are goals that do not necessarily coincide with Turkish national interest. This makes it all the more imperative that Turkey tread very cautiously in the political minefield that is Syria.

Mohammed Ayoob is a professor of international relations at Michigan State University and an adjunct scholar for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

This article was published by Today’s Zaman on August 14, 2012. Read it here.