Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Why can't Turkey rescue its missing journalists in Syria?

It would definitely be unfair to level criticisms against the Turkish government for failing to spot the whereabouts of two missing Turkish journalists from Turkey's Milat daily and Gerçek Hayat magazine. But Turkey's refusal to talk to Syrian authorities may partially explain why the journalists are still missing.
The journalists went missing a month ago and many rumors surfaced regarding the fate of these journalists. Turkey's state news agency then claimed the journalists were handed down to the Syrian intelligence by Shabiha militias in Idlib. It was not confirmed by the Turkish government. 
It was not smart on the side of journalists to travel to Syria. One of my colleagues told me that one of the missing journalists are known as popular critic of Assad and has been an activist both in Syria and in Turkey for years. It is not surprising that Assad regime categorized him and jailed when they had a chance.
Although Turkish diplomats said 25 days ago that they have contacted their Syrian counterparts regarding the journalists, there have not been any statements in this respect almost for weeks.
Part of the problem -- and I underline the word "part" here -- is Turkey's quick dumping of Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad. It is not surprising that Assad is a liar and very good at deceiving his counterparts and making virtuoso maneuvers that would favor his regime in the face of a 13-month bloody uprising in his country.
But is it really the reason of not talking to him? Is being honest in negotiations an essential and necessary part of diplomatic talks? Diplomacy is itself an art of manipulation and an overture through a range of ways, including deception, to gain a favorable outcome. This is what Assad has been doing all along. Turkey was expecting a different treatment and was offended when Assad didn't honor his promises to Turkey. Instead of blaming itself for being too naive and trusting, Turkey accused Assad of being dishonest.
There is a good saying in Turkey: We are Muslims, we could be fooled but we are never fooling. But should it be applicable to state-to-state relations where a single mistake could lead to a war? Should not be diplomats, with all the intelligence at their disposal, be calculating pragmatists?
Ironically, Turkey even talked to Tehran to spot the missing journalists in Syria.  
In the heyday of conflict in Libya last year, Turkey secured the release of four The New York Times journalists, including late Anthony Shadid who told me he is very thankful for Turkey's help in his release. Another journalist Turkey could rescue from Libya was Guardian reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. Abdul-Ahad told me Turkish government was more than helpful and directly involved in the process of his release. Turkey's help was also key in rescuing two German journalists and an American hiker jailed in Iran. It was all possible thanks to Turkey's ability to talk to everybody.
Many in Turkey have started raising serious doubts about Turkey's policies regarding Syria and Turkish diplomats are fiercely countering criticisms, labeling critics as "extensions of Baath regime" in Turkey.
When I inquire government proponents what the essential part of Turkey's Syria policy is, most of the answers include Turkey's shift of policy from standing by Assad to abandoning him. But is it really an effective policy in the case of Syrian regime who is turning a blind eye to sanctions leave alone the diplomatic isolation? This is a survivor regime for four decades that has gone through thick and thin of war, domestic rebellion and international pressure. Defying international community is what it is best at.
In the absence of alternative policies, the most effective way of handling Assad regime would be maintaining dialogue and urging him, no matter what, to stop violence and immediately implement reforms. Turkey is a country which was about to help Israel and Syria strike a historic deal regarding the Golan Heights. All of a sudden, these two countries are now Turkey's enemies. That was of course not Turkey's choice. But Turkey must understand that states may be morally correct in condemning domestic violence but it serves no purpose but severing ties and being unable to help tackle the issue. 
Talking to Syria was Turkey's single most effective and strong weapon and leverage. Turkey used it by throwing it away. 
At least we should be cheerful that the missing journalists are safe and healthy.

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