Interview with Şaban Kardaş

13 May 2015, Istanbul

Dr. Şaban Kardaş is the President of ORSAM (Middle East Strategic Research Center) and a faculty member at the Department of International Relations at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara. He has published scholarly articles and book chapters on Turkish domestic and foreign policies, human rights, energy policies and international security and has been an occasional contributor to Turkish and international media. He has taught classes at Diplomacy Academy, Sakarya University, Police Academy and Turkish Military Academy. He received his doctoral degree in political science from the University of Utah. Dr. Kardas also holds a master’s degree in international relations from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, and a second master’s degree in European Studies from the Center for European Integration Studies in Bonn, Germany.

Selma Bardakcı: Did we come to the end of the Arab Spring? Is there still hope for popular demands to change authoritarian regimes?

Şaban Kardaş: In order to answer that question we have to look at what led to the Arab Spring in the first place, and what made people to go into the streets, risking their own lives. As it was widely argued, back then at the initial stage, the main reasons were socio-economic and political demands coming from the real people, and those were legitimate demands. It was also a search for better governance, personal human dignity, and better economic conditions. Granted, the process has not evolved in the manner that was initially anticipated.

Currently, we are going through a new phase of the process, whereby, increasingly, more than the political transformation, we are looking at the security angle of that process. That security angle, especially the security externalities outside of the region, is receiving the international attention. But despite all that, to answer your question, we need to look at those root causes of the process. Are they still there? Yes. Currently, are they fulfilled? No. Currently, they are just postponed. In that sense, the chapter of political transformation has not been closed, although we are too occupied by the conflict and the images about the crisis in Syria, Iraq, or Libya. In the longer run, you will have to come back to the issue of the political transition and transformation, although the political transformation doesn’t really mean the end to authoritarianism. That is a different question. I think it has to be differentiated.

In the region, first and foremost, what you need is more representative governments, not necessarily in the sense of western style of government or democracy. But what we need is ruling systems that do reflect popular support, that are legitimized by larger segments of the society. So, it could be in the form of pure democracy, but it could be in the form of other modes of governance as well. Hence, here the challenge is to develop political systems that find ways to accommodate the people, and incorporate their feedback into the political mechanisms.

Aside from the political root causes of the transformation, the others are socio-economic issues. So, some of them may be related to authoritarianism, but some are not. Thus, the challenge of economic transformation, the challenge of social transformation or education, or else the need for reforms in other fields, they are not necessarily equal to democratic transition. In that sense, what I suggest is that if non-democratic regimes can manage to meet people’s demands in different areas, they also can respond to the needs of socioeconomic transformation in the region.

In a perfect world, we might have a region filled with democracies. But, as long as they are not able to solve the underlying socio-economic problems, bring stability and order to the region, and meet the people’s demands, that would be a futile development. The challenge is to move to a political environment in which people’s basic expectations that led them to the streets can be met. Unfortunately, in the short run, I am pessimistic. In the longer run, in contrast, I don't think that we are back to an age of authoritarianism or dark ages.

Selma Bardakcı: What are the conditions for stability and security in the Middle East? How far are we from this goal?

Şaban Kardaş: The regional security environment is unfortunately not permissive to have stable peaceful relations among the region. Throughout the region, there are big region-wide security challenges such as rivalry among regional powers, militarization, fragmentation, sectarian politics, the movement of people and refugee issues, unemployment or other human security issues. These are region-wide problems and they are feeding the instability in other regions. On the other hand, other extra-regional actors are feeding the insecurity in the regional environment; so it is quite a dire situation. Currently, the way out of this conflict spiral requires a region-wide framework to address the problems. This is, as things stand, hard to achieve because of many factors, such as the rivalries amongst the regional actors. The high degree of securitization of politics, which is an ongoing process, the lack of regional leadership, which again breeds rivalries, or the rise of new forces in the form of negative game changers are all working against the dynamics of integration. These negative forces are favoring more fragmentation in the region, and emboldening the dynamics that are supporting divisions along alternative lines.

Hence, in that process, the empowerment of sub-state actors, who are working to advance their own agendas, is also undermining regional solutions. Right now, the most immediate challenge is to bring an end to the ongoing conflicts. Without pacifying the conflicts, you cannot get any permanent solution to the problems. As long as there is a zone of conflict and stability, it will continue to perpetuate the existing socio economical and political problems. The first goal is to end the conflicts, the second is to bring an end to the rivalries among the regional actors. Then comes the really hard challenge, the crux of the issue so to speak: in terms of individual countries, we need to go back to the basics, which is the need for state building in the region.

A major problem has been the decline of the state and the institutions, weakening the state capacity to rule and govern, manage economy, meet people's basic expectations, and exercise sovereign rights over its borders and territory. For that, of course, the challenge will be many-fold. In some countries that went through a conflict, state building will be a very difficult task, because it will require an enormous amount of reconstruction due simply to the fact that many urban areas or basic infrastructure have been physically devastated by the conflict. It requires enormous financial resources and a political agenda as well. At the same time, the state institutions, security apparatus being the most vital of them, will have to be restructured under the pressure of the new dynamics of fragmentation. But even in other countries which were saved by the scourge of conflict, there still remains a need to focus on state institutions and basic infrastructure. Again, these are big challenges that require a comprehensive region-wide approach, with the investment of enormous political and economical capital.

Unfortunately, I am also pessimistic, because initially, as I said, the inability to address the political situation has led to the current security vacuum. In the initial phase of the Arab Spring, when the environment was relatively more peaceful, the relevant regional and international stakeholders could not develop a framework towards managing the political transition that would have ensured state building. Now, in the post conflict phase, state building will be very difficult. As we observe, let alone garnering and channeling the necessary resources and actors to such a major undertaking, there are major problems in mobilizing resources and forming coalitions to fight immediate security challenges.

Selma Bardakcı: Would the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry continue to escalate? Who has the upper hand? What does the future hold?

Şaban Kardaş: Of course, in this competition it is hard to determine the root causes and then the responsibility of each actor. This is essentially a theoretical problem pertaining to the states’ motivations. In the literature, we always have a debate regarding offensive versus defensive policies of states, as well as a concept called the “security dilemma.” When these discussions are taken into account, in this Iranian-Saudi rivalry, it is hard to identify who is offensive and who is defensive, who is triggering the rivalry, who is escalating the conflict, or who is trying to lessen it. Then the real question is whether they are caught in a “security dilemma” or not. I don’t want to go into the beginning of who is to blame, because it is hard to pinpoint what kicked off the rivalry, but the fact is that there is something vicious going on.

In that sense, as the logic of the security dilemma suggests, one's actions are triggering the others, so it is escalating. For some time, it would appear that the Iranian policy, especially in the past few years, was the main driver of that escalation. Especially the Iranian policy in Syria and Iraq did contribute to the escalation of the rivalry, which is somehow understandable given Iran’s role in the Arab Spring and the Syrian conflict. Iran’s motivations to do so were also complicated. Iran in a sense perceived the Western policy in Syria as a threat to its regime survival. It ended up opting for the current policy in Syria, which later gave way to their extensive involvement in Iraq, eventually escalating the security concerns of the Gulf countries.

Today, regarding Yemen, the Saudis feel they need to send a signal that they are concerned about the escalation and the actions of Iran that are seen as “interference in Arab affairs.” They indeed did send a signal that they will not tolerate such policies anymore, but another reason why they chose to do so was because of the vague Western or U.S. policy. The slow pace of U.S. efforts in putting an end to the conflict in Syria and the ambivalent U.S. policy towards Iraq have raised suspicions in the Gulf, increasingly forcing them to take matters into their own hands. Moreover, the ongoing process for the resolution of the nuclear dispute led to some speculations that the United States and Iran might reach a new understanding in the region, where Iran might be seen as a potential partner of the West. However, this also aggravated the concerns and fears of the Gulf. As a result, their urge to do more to fend themselves off against perceived Iranian aggression increased. That is largely the background to the recent Saudi position. Regarding the rivalry, it is hard to tell who is winning or losing, because it is an ongoing process and both are entrenched in this cycle. Although Iran might appear to be on the winning side, it is, in my opinion, a premature assessment and in this unfolding game.

Selma Bardakcı: How do you see the situation in Yemen? Would Saudi intervention improve the situation in Yemen?

Şaban Kardaş: In Yemen, we have two parallel processes going on, which is in fact the case in most of the regional conflicts. On the one hand, we have the regional rivalry; on the other hand, we see the local conflict dynamics. This is the same in Iran, Syria, Libya, and Yemen as well. Unfortunately, in recent years, the regional rivalry, the geopolitical calculations, and local conflict dynamics did overlap in mutually reinforcing but negative ways such that they are undermining the regional security structures. Thus, Yemen is in that sense another example of that destabilizing trend.

In Yemen, of course, the local conditions are quite in line with the broader trends previously discussed. There have been socio-economic problems and an unresolved political crisis. The transition, in the early phases of the Arab Spring, with the Saudi interference, was achieved on surface. However, the Yemen case showed that without changing the underlying political and socio-economic conditions, just changing the political leadership does not solve the problems. In a sense, I think that Yemen is a perfect example to demonstrate that just achieving a temporary fix may save us some time, but if the demands of the people, in terms of representation and economic welfare, are not met, those conditions can eventually create potential explosions. In the case of Yemen, I think that this is the domestic context. When the regional rivalries have been added to this potentially explosive situation, unfortunately, the country could not be saved from an unfolding civil war.

Selma Bardakcı: What is your assessment of the Syrian situation? Is there a way out from the current deadlock after recent moves of the opposition?

Şaban Kardaş: In Syria, for some time, there was more or less a stalemate on the ground since mid-2013 or so between the regime and opposition controlled areas. The power of Assad regime has been in decline. So, in the regime held areas and rebel held areas, the boundary lines were mostly established. Change occurred within the opposition controlled areas with the rise of ISIS. When we look at ISIS, it expanded at the expense of the opposition, and unfortunately, not at the cost of the Assad regime.

Of course the rise of ISIS has become a big game-changer in the perceptions of the outside actors. In a sense, the regime came to be seen as the lesser evil of the two, due to the rise of ISIS. But even before the recent advance of the opposition, I had been arguing that we were not confronted with a deadlock, but a dynamic stalemate on the ground. This means that within itself, it has its own changes and dynamism. It was also dynamic in the sense that if you could insert force from outside, if you can push the equation in a certain direction, you can also change the situation on the ground.

First of all, the regime was weakened for several years now, but we are unfortunately looking falsely at the fact that the regime has managed to survive at the expense of the cost of this survival. But just managing to survive doesn’t mean much, because in the meantime the regime and state apparatus have been weakened, and in many places they were able to stop the advances of the opposition with the support of Hezbollah and Iran, and also Russia. However, the regime on the ground has effectively been weakened in terms of supplies and troops, and also in terms of recruiting new soldiers and maintaining the support of its own base, including the Alewites and other segments of the society.

Now, with that in mind, if you could insert a new element into the equation, you can tilt the balance on the ground. Now, what happened recently? On the opposition side, in some areas, the opposition forces sorted out their own differences, unified their positions, and were able to manage coordination to attack certain military targets. This occurred when they were able to put aside the infighting, which was the main problem for the opposition from the beginning. So, it showed that if the opposition can solve such inherent weaknesses, they can change the situation on the ground. Hence, this is the story in Idlib and other places.

In Idlib, we also saw a very clear sign of the weakening of the regime, in terms of the military dynamism, which they lost. It was seen that they could hardly hold the territory they control, but they could not make any major offensives to conquer new territory. In this equation, the only thing that remained as a game changer for the regime is the air force. In that sense, you need to address the air force and its indiscriminate attacks on civilian with the use of barrel bombs. Even such steps may change the situation on the ground to large extent. If outside actors are keen on really getting something done, they have to invest in the opposition and figure out which opposition groups to work with. But so far, the main point that was missing was that they did not put enough military or political resources behind those groups which they designated as worth of support.

If the outside actors are very sincere about moving forward and changing the situation on the ground, they have to increase the military assistance to the groups they have designated. If the air force superiority is taken out of the equation and substantive support is extended, then, the regime will really feel the pressure that may force it to sit and negotiate. This is where we will see that the solution is not a military solution; it is a political one. However, this does not mean that the military instrument should not be used altogether, it can be used to support a political agenda. This option is still there, and without that, the regime will continue to play the same game. You have to change the balance on the ground so that the regime is forced to accept a political solution. This is where the Geneva I formulation still remains, as it still provides a framework for the political solution.

Selma Bardakcı: What does Turkey-Qatar-Saudi alliance mean in regards to dealing with the Syrian situation? What can it deliver?

Şaban Kardaş: Well, I am skeptical of using the term alliance. I mean they refer to the recent advances of the opposition as a sign of an alliance, but we have yet to see what will really come up. So far, we have seen some coordination, not in terms of really developing a joint position around an alliance. So far, what we see is them putting aside their differences. Before, there were different policies, which prevented a more efficient result on the ground. I think this is what is happening; the rivalry among them is lessened. But this does not mean that there is an alliance, as was speculated by some analysts; we will have to wait and see more proof of that. If there is something like that, we need to see how it is coordinated with the United States, because I don’t think they will act independently without coordination with American policies.

Selma Bardakcı: What is Turkey’s position vis-à-vis the Middle East problems? What are the priority areas? How would Turkey help with the stability and security in the region?

Şaban Kardaş: The regional situation is not in line with Turkey’s ideal vision toward the Middle East. Turkey’s foreign policy rests on more integration, increasing channels of communication with the region, and increasing economic and social interactions. It wants to realize more of this neo-functionalist understanding of international relations. But right now in the region we are going through fragmentation due to the conflict and, of course, this is almost a diametrically opposed vision compared to that of Turkey’s ideal vision for the region.

So, for Turkey, the challenge is big. It is essentially a conceptual challenge, notwithstanding the difficulties encountered in different cases. Turkey has been trying to increase its visibility in the region and has stepped into regional affairs with a proactive regional approach. In this sense, it feels it is more of a part of this region and is positively and negatively affecting and being affected by the regional developments, compared to previous decades.

First and foremost, Turkey’s aim is to defend its own security. When Turkey is so proactive in the region, Turkey’s first priority is to limit the negative externalities coming from the region. However, this quest for bolstering security does not justify an isolationist policy. Therefore, the challenge is big. While one can theoretically isolate itself, secure its borders, and minimize the interactions as a precaution against the regional security risks of such grave extent, Turkey does the opposite and continues to maintain a high degree of openness and engagement.

If Turkey can handle it successfully, it will also prove its role as a regional power. Turkey can contribute to the stability of the region, because, right now what we need is, first and foremost, to put an end to the ongoing conflicts. Turkey can play crucial stabilizer roles in Iraq and Syria. It’s a big job; hence, it is beyond Turkey’s ability to solve this problem alone. It requires some collective effort, regionally and internationally. So, Turkey’s first and foremost contribution will be in the suppression of the conflict, but more important than that, if we can move to the post-conflict phase, the big challenge will be state building. This is where Turkey’s own experience will be the key factor in terms of physical, state, and bureaucratic infrastructure.

Turkey has a role to play, and Turkey has an enormous experience to share. I think this is where the so-called “Turkish model” can really make a meaningful contribution. So, this will be the real crucial test for Turkey and this will also be the big test of Turkey’s role in the Middle East. Turkey needs to help solve the problems of the weak states. The real test for Turkey is to make a crucial contribution to state building. If it can be achieved, then we can have a meaningful regional order.