Letter from Istanbul: The Syrian Conflict
Thousands of people saying “No to War” on Istikklal Caddesi and Taksim Square this week in Istanbul
It was Tamer, one of my students at the Migros corporate headquarters, who broke the news to me. It was Thursday morning, just after eight. Migros is the country’s largest supermarket chain, but the headquarters’ offices that morning were still quiet, since most employees don’t get there until nine.
“Did you hear about the bombing?” Tamer asked. “Yesterday evening?”
“What bombing?” I was behind the curve as always. I’d spent the evening on my balcony drinking beer and reading a collection of Raymond Carver stories.
We went to CNN, where the top story was about Turkey’s retaliatory attack on Syrian security forces, in response to the shelling that killed five Turkish citizens in Akchakale, a small border town. It was the latest and most alarming episode in a drama that has been escalating for many months. In that time tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey and are being housed in tents along the border, and in June a Turkish jet was reportedly downed by Syrian forces.
Now, in the wake of the shelling in Akchakale, the Turks for the first time had struck back.
“I think maybe the war is starting,” Tamer said.
We went to the Turkish news reports. Hurriyet Daily News indicated that the Turkish Parliament was meeting that morning to consider a resolution authorizing further use of force in the event of future attacks by Syrian forces.
“Oh, it will will pass,” Tamer said, when I asked what he thought would happen. “Remember, the Prime Minister (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) wants this resolution to pass, and his party (The Justice and Development Party, or AKP) has the majority.
“Well, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens in the next few days,” I said, at the end of the lesson.
“Let’s hope that nothing does happen,” Tamer said grimly.
Tamer’s sentiments were echoed by other students and friends that day. Indeed, even Erdogan was reported in the Turkish press that same day, when, as expected Parliament approved the resolution authorizing intervention in Syria, that Turkey was not looking to start a war. It was merely a defensive measure, the prime minister said. In other words, if they hit us, we’ll hit ‘em back.
Servet, a student at an electronics distribution firm , was also hesitant about the idea of all-out war.
“But I think it’s not enough that Syria apologizes for the bombing,” he added. “They must also promise that it will not happen again.” (Actually, Syrian authorities did both of those things that same day, in the wake of the Parliament resolution).
That same evening, thousands of people protested against war on Taksim Square. “No to war! Peace now!We won’t be soldiers for imperialists!”
Others I spoke to were not only against war in Syria, but also accused the Western powers, particularly the United States, of encouraging Turkey to fight. These critics cited NATO’s support for Turkey’s resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria if necessary. A friend from Bulgaria posted on Facebook these thoughts passed on to her from Turkish friends:
WHAT BBC AND CNN DOES IS TO MANIPULATE THE FACTS AND TO DECEIVE PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD THAT PEOPLE OF TURKEY SUPPORT THE WAR. IT IS A SHAMELESS LIE and LEND (sic) SUPPORT TO ALL CRITIQUES RAISED SO FAR THAT THESE NEWS AGENCIES ENGAGE IN AN EFFORT TO FABRICATE ‘SIDES’, “OPINIONS”, AND “TRUTHS” ON THE ISSUE OF “ARAB SPRING”.
Of course, suspicion of the West is nothing new in this part of the world. Most Turks tend to subscribe to the Invisible Hand theory (and to a large extent, they are right), but that’s not what concerns us in this letter.
Instead, let’s go back in time. December 2010. CNN ran a report on Gaziantep, “Turkey’s rising southeastern star.” The report went on to examine how business in Gaziantep was booming, thanks in large part to its strategic location near the Syrian border. Historically, this city was part of the ancient Silk Road, a trade route from Europe to Asia. Now, Gaziantep seemed poised to be part of a new Silk Road. Much of its exports, in textiles for instance, were headed to markets across the Middle East.
More importantly, the city was benefitting from an excellent business relationship with Syria. At that time, relations between Turkey and Syria were so good that most tariffs and visa requirements had been lifted. Syrians in those days were spilling into Turkey as tourists, and news media ran footage of Syrian President Bashad al-Assad and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan embracing, calling each other “brother.”
My students, most of them business people, enjoyed the story. “I was there last week on business,” one student said. “You must try the kebab in Gaziantep. It’s excellent!”
But as Hemingway once said, everything is good until it gets bad. Now, the Syrians come not as tourists, but as refugees, cramped in tents along the border, with winter coming and a resolution to the conflict seemingly far off. Obviously, the relationship between Erdogan and al-Assad is not so brotherly these days, especially since Erdogan has joined much of the international community in calling for al-Assad to step down.
Looking back, that glowing CNN report on Gaziantep seems almost a relic now, in the glaring light of present events. It would be interesting if CNN, or anyone with the time and resources, to follow up and see how the escalating Syrian conflict has affected Gaziantep’s starry horizons (although I’m sure the kebab remains excellent), not to mention other cities on both sides of the border.
I do remember during the Libyan conflict talking with students at a firm here in Istanbul. They talked about how Turkish construction firms were heavily affected by the conflict, as tens of thousands of employees and their families living in Libya had to return to Turkey, and the projects came to a halt.
Understand, I realize that much more is at stake here than a few dollars or a few missed carpet shipments, or a few construction delays. Lives are stake. The future of the region is at stake. But as I hope I have successfully conveyed, it’s a real mixed bag over here, çok karışık, çok zor as the Turks would say. Very mixed, very difficult.
Who knows what will happen in the coming days, weeks, months, or however long this unfolding drama lingers? Again, most Turks seem to be of Tamer’s opinion: they hope not much will happen. However, one must observe that that Turks and Syrians seem to have in common, other than religion, is a strong sense of national pride. One can only hope that Thursday’s events were an aberration, and that preventative steps are being taken on both sides to avoid any future skirmishes, for they would only lead to an escalation in the conflict, if not to war. One can only hope that cooler heads will prevail, but cool heads are hard to come by in a hot region.
Meanwhile, here in Istanbul, far away from the hot zone, there seems to be a bit of edginess. The police have increased their presence in places like Taksim Square and in Kadikoy. One of my teacher friends, an Englishman, has had his bag searched three times by police in the past week. When he asked why, the police responded that it was merely “a change of procedure.” I asked my students about it, and they suggested that, given the volatile climate, there may be increased concerns about terrorist bombings. I don’t know. When I see policemen gathered together, I tend to just head in the other direction; in any circumstance, groups of cops standing together tend to make me nervous. Wait, that’s the word I’ve been looking for: nervous! That’s the feeling I got from Tamer, and from other students I talked to. Everyone just seems nervous, on edge. It’s understandable, given the news this past week. It’s also contagious.
Author’s postscript: In a speech in Istanbul on Friday, just hours after this letter was written, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan said that Turkey must be prepared for war if it wants to have peace.
“We are not war-lovers, but we are not very far from war either,” Erdogan said. “The saying goes, ‘Prepare for war if you wish to have peace.’ So: war becomes the key to peace. They ask whether the children will go to war? If need be, we, including myself, will go all the way there.”
James Tressler was a reporter for the Times-Standard. His novels, including “Conversations in Prague” and “The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches,” are available at Amazon and Lulu.com.