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Cornell Voices: Current Crisis in Turkey, Syria, and the Islamic State

Map of Turkey and Syria

On September 24th, 2015 the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies hosted an insightful current events roundtable discussion on Turkey, Syria, and the Islamic State. Held at Uris Hall, the roundtable discussion was attended by a large number of faculty members and students and featured Lisel Hintz, Postdoctoral Associate at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Aziz Rana, Associate Professor of Law at Cornell, and Jens David Ohlin, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Law at Cornell, as the primary speakers. Matthew Evangelista, the President White Professor of History and Political Science and the Director of the Reppy Institute, moderated the discussion.

Dr. Lisel Hintz, whose research focuses on Turkey, began the discussion by explaining the complex history of the Turkey-Syria relationship and described Turkey's approach towards Syria and the domestic and foreign policy issues connected to the Syrian regime as being characterized by numerous flip-flops. Dr. Hintz highlighted the various tensions in the relationship between the two countries, including territorial dispute and water disputes, Cold War rivalries, and the belligerence displayed by both sides during the 1990s when they were at the brink of war over Syria's support for Turkey's Kurdish PKK. She then highlighted the dramatic upswing in their relationship due in part to the warm personal friendship shared by their two leaders - then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Basher Al-Assad - only to be followed by a flip-flop in policy when Erdoğan suddenly revoked his support of Assad after months of cajoling him to implement reforms in the wake of the Arab Spring. Dr. Hintz also drew attention to Turkey's domestic political developments, including the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) loss of a parliamentary majority for the first time in June 2015, which she argues has contributed to Turkey's flip-flops in policy towards the region's Kurdish population and the Islamic State. She stated "the desire to control the parliament and be able to implement Erdoğan's dream of a presidential system giving him even more power, combined with resentment against the Kurdish-based Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP) for taking seats away from the AKP, play a large role in policy shifts that ended the Kurdish peace process at home and initiated bombing against the PKK abroad." Dr. Hintz then argued that the timing of a third flip-flop in Turkey's policies - from prolonged inaction against the Islamic State to finally allowing US access to Turkish airbases and participating in bombing raids against ISIS - can best be understood in the context of distracting international attention away from Turkey's renewed war against the Kurds. She commented that "one of the saddest elements of the socio-political and security issues concerning Turkey right now is how close the country seemed to finally resolving its decades-long conflict with the Kurds, only to be foiled again by domestic politicking and its regional spillover."

Emphasizing the seriousness of the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the incongruity in the West’s approach towards resolving the problem, Dr. Aziz Rana asserted, “The conversation in the US has been about intervention or nonintervention. This is a fundamentally wrong way of thinking about American foreign policy; and the foreign policy of the regional actors when it comes to Syria, rather than the problem being nonintervention, the basic fact has been one of near continuous forms of military intervention in Syria in ways that have significantly militarized the conflict and worsened conditions. [These actions] have not been predicated on the humanitarian crisis. In fact what has largely happened is that, various actors from Iran and Russia to the US, the Gulf States and Turkey, have privileged their own security objectives over local humanitarian concerns in ways that have steadily shifted what has happened on the ground in Syria from a popular uprising into a civil war into now an international proxy war.” Discussing possible diplomatic interventions to resolve the issue Dr. Rana highlighted the proposition put forth by former UN Special Envoy to Syria; Lakhdar Brahimi who had suggested a more inclusive dialogue incorporating Russia and Iran. Dr. Rana also discussed the reasons for the failure of these proposed talks, most notably, a belief among sections in the West and in the Gulf States that the conflict in Syria had a tipping point after which Syria would fall.

Dr. Jens David Ohlin spoke about the legal ramifications of an international intervention in Syria and whether the possibility of breaking the International Law was affecting the thinking of international powers. Dr. Ohlin argued that attacking ISIS on foreign soil, particularly on Syrian soil, without explicit permission would be considered, by some, an act of aggression against Syria and that this had certainly affected the thinking of the western countries, most notably the United Kingdom. Speaking about the legal justifications and safeguards that were in place if an intervention took place Dr. Ohlin affirmed, “The proposed standard which the dialogue is structured around is the doctrine which says that you can attack a host state whose territory is being used by a non-state actor to launch attacks against third states, if the host state is unable or unwilling to stop the non-state actor from using its territory. In the case against Syria, you would lean most heavily on ‘unable.’ The problem with the legal standard is that its status as actual law is completely contested.” Dr. Ohlin also highlighted the additional complexities arising due to the United States providing training and support to Syrian rebels and stated that there were questions about whether the United States was liable for the actions of these rebel fighters during war.

The discussion which was a part of the Reppy Institute’s weekly brown bag seminar series demonstrates the Reppy Institute’s and the Einaudi Center’s commitment towards fostering dialogue on relevant topics and important issues.

Source of map: www.aljazeera.com