“Begin normalization with Syria to keep Kurds within the unitary state”

“Begin normalization with Syria to keep Kurds within the unitary state”

The situation in Cyprus and Crimea as a major topic in Turkish-Russian relations, the rapprochement process between Ankara and Cairo and the Turkish policies regarding Syria are hotly discussed regionally. We spoke about these issues with Yaşar Yakış, Turkish Foreign Minister 2002 – 2003 during the first term of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).

While stressing that Turkey should rapidly normalize its relations with Egypt and Syria, Yakış said that the issues in Crimea and Cyprus could be handled in cooperation with Russia.

The two-state solution in Cyprus is in Russia’s interest as well

How would you evaluate the recent proposal, brought up in both Turkey and Russia, that Ankara and Moscow should find a common solution by resolving the Cyprus and Crimea issues as a package?

I believe that such proposals are quite correct. However, I do not believe that the Cyprus and Crimea issues should necessarily be handled together. Both of those issues can be resolved with the co-operation between Turkey and Russia, but they can be resolved separately as well.

Concerning Cyprus: I do not think that Russia will ever benefit from a federally unified Cyprus, which the international community currently demands. In other words, a two-state solution in Cyprus would be more in Russia’s interest here. Russia probably does not want to retract its previous vote it gave at the United Nations Security Council.

However, if they would choose otherwise, there are plenty reasons to justify such a decision. They can simply argue that the Turkish Cypriots have been working for a solution for years, while the Greek Cypriots have been refusing to act in any direction. And if Cyprus unifies under a single federal state, it will be on the European Union’s side, and it will simply turn into another country on the opposite side to Russia. This is because Cyprus would position itself among the Western bloc and against Russia. However, in a two-state solution, one of those states can lean closer towards Russia. Therefore, such a solution would definitely be more in Russia’s favor.

A change of course is necessary in the Crimea policy

The Crimean issue on the other hand should be evaluated within its own dynamics. Crimea had already been a part of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic until 1956. We have to keep that historical fact in mind. More than 70 percent of the peninsula was already ethnically Russian even back then. A very small population of Crimeans and Tatars were left. We can reject the annexation of Crimea by Russia, and that is understandable, but nobody is able to drive Russia out of Crimea today. Russia will not give up the advantages of Crimea that easily. In addition to that, the city of Sevastopol has a special status within Crimea, which Moscow will not give up on.

Turkey should be able to see this reality, and therefore should not shout out its rejection of the annexation aloud, or in a way that would disturb Russia heavily. We have to accept this reality in our relations with Russia. One issue that matters most to us, would be the rights of Crimean Tatars. If we wish to improve the rights and liberties of the Crimean Tatars, we must negotiate this issue with Russia, instead of Ukraine. If Russia is the present power in the peninsula, it is quite unrealistic and hollow to say “I do not recognize this annexation, and I would discuss the rights and liberties of the Crimean Tatars with Ukraine instead”. Turkey should instead discuss this issue with Russia. Therefore, a change of course and a calibration of the Crimea policy is necessary.

The rapprochement in the Turkish-Egyptian relations is inevitable

Recently, Ankara and Cairo have taken some steps towards normalization of relations. How would you evaluate these? How do you think how should the process advance now?

I believe that the relations between Turkey and Egypt should be considered in a broader perspective. Actually, there was no reason for Turkey and Egypt to break their relations in the first place. The issue is all about the Turkish response after the military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi regime. The AK Party has an ideological affinity to the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s why Turkey gave such a strong reaction against the military coup in Egypt that overthrew Morsi.

It is okay to oppose military coups. However, there is a rule in the international relations; if the group that carried out this coup maintains its authority in the country for a while after the coup, it becomes necessary to contact and recognize this new authority internationally. Indeed, the international community welcomed Al-Sisi mostly after some time. This is the how things are done in the rest of the world. Turkey however, could not manage to do so. Turkey remains as the only country that still considered the imprisoned Morsi as the legitimate president of Egypt. And it should not have done that.

It is especially wrong for Turkey to do this to Egypt, concerning the very deep historical bilateral ties. The Turkish-Egyptian relations date back to almost 1200 years ago. The Turkish presence in Egypt is actually older than the Turkish presence in Turkey. The Turkish presence in Egypt began back in 868 when the Abbasid Caliphate appointed Ahmad Ibn-Tulun, the founder of the Turkic Tulunid dynasty, as Governor of Egypt. Ibn-Tulun, who desired to establish his own army, has recruited tens of thousands of Kipchak Turks from Central Asia. These Kipchak Turks have intermarried with the local Egyptians. Therefore, the Turkish presence in Egypt is much older, than it is in Anatolia. These two peoples are connected in such a way.

Turkey must take a step

There have been three separate incidents, where relations between these two countries have been severely deteriorated and the ambassadors have been mutually recalled to their home country, in all of which Turkey had the fault. The first takes place in 1933, the second during the Nasser era, and the third, as you already know, after Morsi’s overthrowal. And as you also know we have not acted in the kindest way, and never refrained from insulting the other side.

And now, Turkey is the side that demands the restoration of the relations, so they would expect us to fulfill their demands. The shutdown of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated television channels in Istanbul, for example. Turkey has taken steps in this direction and warned these Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated television channels to broadcast only cultural contents and not political ones, but we still do not know if this will be enough. Or we will see whether the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood residing in Turkey will be deported. When the news broke out about a possible rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt, the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said: “We will look at what Turkey is doing, and not at what it has promised.”

In summary, the rapprochement in the Turkish-Egyptian relations is inevitable. And it must be done as early as possible. However, the actual motivation will have to come from Turkey. We will only see if Egypt finds the Turkish motivation high enough.

Turkey must reverse wrong decision in Syria

Can a similar normalization process be experienced between Ankara and Damascus, especially aiming at the elimination of the PKK/PYD threat? What would be the possible effects of such a process on the region?

The Turkish policies on Syria are completely wrong. As the international community tried to support the opposition in Syria at first, they hit the break as soon as they realized that the weapons support the provided, went into the wrong hands, to the Islamic fundamentalists.

Turkey failed to hit the brakes and it was too late when they realized. Turkey made an irreversible error and assumed that Bashar Al-Assad would be overthrown very fast. And they did something that should never be done in diplomacy, putting all eggs into the same basket, assuming a very swift overthrow of Bashar Al-Assad. That assumption never turned into reality and now, Turkey has to suffer the consequences. Turkey gradually became a common route for the Islamic fundamentalists to cross into Syria, for example. Most of these fundamentalists got stuck inside Idlib governorate, and now we are trying to get them out from that region. This is why Turkey’s policy on Syria has horribly failed. Russia has been trying to reach an agreement on Idlib, with a mediation between Turkey and Syria lately. Turkey had previously promised Russia that it would agree with the opposition elements in Idlib to lay down their weapons, but failed to keep that promise.

As for the Kurds in Syria, Turkey followed a very wrong policy in this case as well. Salih Muslim has been invited to Turkey many times, and met with the authorities. Being the co-chair of the PYD, Salih Muslim previously said that they had no problems with Turkey and that they are keen on joining Turkey’s cause, in northern Syria. Then Turkey said, “Join on our side and declare war on Bashar Al-Assad, and we would support you”. However, Muslim, who knew about the power balances in Syria very well, had different arrangements, and refused this offer, taking into account the possibility that Al-Assad might win the civil war. Turkey basically delivered the Syrian Kurds to the PKK and to the USA.

The current situation would be much different if Turkey had achieved an agreement with Bashar Al-Assad and both countries had ensured the security at their borders together.

Cooperation with Damascus is the solution to the problems

The United States and all other global powers want to keep the Kurdish issue as an ace in their hands. There are large Kurdish populations in four countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey) in the region, and all these countries have problems with their Kurdish minorities. There are some heavy sentiments of separatism.

In such an environment, Western countries that wish to be present in international politics, want to keep the Kurdish ace in their hands. The US has a specific reason for itself: the security concerns of Israel’s security. The United States gives great importance to the Israeli national security. They need a Kurdistan for these concerns.

Therefore, we have some common interests with Bashar Assad, especially on the Kurdish issue. Do we want a separate Kurdish state in Northern Syria, or do we want these Kurds to be part of a unitary Syria under Al-Assad rule? I guess we would prefer them to be part of the unitary Syria. That is the direction we need to head together with Al-Assad. It is very important for Damascus and Ankara to immediately begin a normalization process, in this regard. Also, in order to solve the refugee crisis, Turkey needs to improve its diplomatic relations with Syria as soon as possible and has to withdraw its troops from the Syrian territory, as it was promised. The principle of respect for the territorial integrity of Syria that was agreed upon in the Sochi memorandum, must be fully complied.

Elif İlhamoğlu

Elif İlhamoğlu is political scientist and  journalist (Turkey). She is studying for PHD on the political science and international relations department at Istanbul University. She visited Middle East countries, Syria, Lebanon, Iran several times and did interviews with the leaders as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hilal al-Hilal Secretary General of the Syrian Ba'ath Party.

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March 2024