The Idlib Problem Still with Us

April 27, 2020

Coronavirus is seen as the greatest global challenge of modern times. Because, the death toll in some countries has reached tens of thousands. Just as important is the shock of unpreparedness, helplessness and vulnerability of a technologically advanced world under attack. A second wave is looming, but second-strike capability is of no consequence. Nonetheless, countries including those hardest hit are planning to ease restrictions because the economy matters.

With the pandemic, conflicts which have for long remained high on the international agenda temporarily receded. One heard less about Syria, Libya, Yemen even the Islamic State. However, as the world adapts to a new way of life, these will surface again with an added corona threat dimension. In Turkey, for example, our problem will again be Idlib.  Of course, our democratic and economic decline are also problems but that those are now a given.

To begin with, I would say for the umpteenth time that the contrast between the bombast of eight years ago and today’s realities unmistakably shows that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (JDP) foray into the Syrian conflict has been the worst strategic blunder in the history of the Republic.

In Idlib the government has kept struggling, hoping that things would somehow work out. The “Additional Protocol to the Memorandum on Stabilization of the Situation in the Idlib De-Escalation Area” was a respite. It will not resolve the problem. Moreover, Idlib has now become the key to dealing with our other challenges in Syria and the future of our relations with Damascus. Continuing to reinforce our military presence there is only “more of the same” and will not get us anywhere.

To move forward the government must admit that our taking a leading role in the regime change project in Syria was a mistake. Because, this is the dictate of common sense. But it is easier said than done.

In a remarkable New York Times article titled “Why It’s So Hard to Admit You’re Wrong” Kristin Wong said the following on May 22, 2017:

“Despite your best intentions and efforts, it is inevitable: At some point in your life, you will be wrong.

“Mistakes can be hard to digest, so sometimes we double down rather than face them. Our confirmation bias kicks in, causing us to seek out evidence to prove what we already believe. The car you cut off has a small dent in its bumper, which obviously means that it is the other driver’s fault.

“Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance — the stress we experience when we hold two contradictory thoughts, beliefs, opinions or attitudes. For example, you might believe you are a kind and fair person, so when you rudely cut someone off, you experience dissonance. To cope with it, you deny your mistake and insist the other driver should have seen you, or you had the right of way even if you didn’t.”

The problem is the Turkish government is suffering from chronic cognitive dissonance. It loathes admitting mistakes. The best it can do is to say that it has been deceived or misled, that its goodwill has been abused. Nonetheless, there are things it can do short of outright admission of fault.

Like many other countries Turkey is busy fighting the corona pandemic, so far it seems rather successfully. And, right across the border is Idlib, home to over three million people, half of whom have been displaced from elsewhere in the country. Washington Post’s Sarah Dadouch related on April 18 that according to a report released by United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the health system in Idlib is in ruins; weak disease surveillance, population density, low levels of sanitation services, poor response capacity and suboptimal levels of public health preparedness are all factors that are likely to trigger a rapid transmission of the virus in the region.

The Turkish government has sent medical equipment to a few countries to help them fight the pandemic. Perhaps it can also consider extending a generous helping hand to the people of Syria also. After all, we always claimed that we were a friend of the Syrian people. We were at the forefront of long-gone groups claiming such titles. This could be a first act of good neighborliness after eight long years of confrontation and may pave the way for the resumption of relations with Damascus. It would also be less costly than maintaining our military presence there. At some point this is going to happen anyway.  Covid-19 cooperation may make the inevitable more palatable for both sides.



About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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