Are Turkey’s policies towards Syria and Sudan contradictory?

07 June 2013
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The use of force by the government in Syria to supress the opposition people movement is being criticised by many countries, including Turkey. Particularlary, the bombing of the civilian areas and the videos of tortures that the Syrian soldiers incflicted upon the captured opposition figures have increased the degree of criticisms against the Assad regime in Turkey.On the other hand, the attitude that Turkey adopted during the Syrian crisis is being criticized by many segments of Turkish public opinion. 


In the criticisms leveled against Turkey, it has been claimed that the Turkish government is contradicting itself in that Turkey adopted a different attitude towards Sudan which experiences similar problems with Syria. The ones who find Turkish foreign policy contradictory accuse Turkey of increasing its voice regarding the events in Syria while improving relations with the President of Sudan by overlooking the mistreatment of the Sudanese people by the government of Sudan. The primacry reason of such accusations is that Turkey has improved its relations with Sudan in recent years and welcome the President of Sudan,  Omar al-Bashir, in Cankaya while he was indicted for genocide in Darfur.


It is not correct to argue that Turkish foreign policy has been contradictory by comparing the developments in Sudan with the crisis in Syria. The reason why the Turkish government and the foreign policy decision makers have been exposed to such criticisms is that the developments in Sudan have not been properly understood. In this analysis, it will be demonstrated that the developments in Sudan and Syria are different from each other, that it would be wrong to compare the two cases and  there is no contradiction in the postions of Turkey towards these countries. 


If the Sudanese government were to be accused of killing its people, such a criticism could be made over two particular events/episodes. The first is the civil war between the Sudanese state and the Sudanese People Liberation Army (SPLA) which lasted from 1956 when Sudan declared its independence till 2005 (exclusing the time period between 1972 and 1983 when the civil war temporaraly ended). The second is the civil war in the Darfur region. By examining the developments in Sudan shortly and explainig their differences from the crisis in Syria, it will be explained that it would be wrong to criticise Turkish foregin policy over Sudan.


Is the Civil War in Southern Sudan same as the developments in Syria?

The civil war in Southern Sudan is the claim of a separatist movement for independence by challenging the sovereignty of the state and the subsequent armed struggle that took place when the State of Sudan did  not let this happen.  The main essential feature of  a state is the absence of another organization within its borders that legitimately uses forceThe ethnic groups that emerged in southern Sudan with independence claims and demanding the partition of the country revolted against the government in Khartum by organizing their armed forces. As no state condones the possibility of its territories being partitioned, the Sudanese government mobilized its army to repress the SPLA. Therefore, the armed struggle of the Sudanese government against the SPLA that lasted till 2005 (no matter how legitimate and humanitarian that happened to be) was a legitimate struggle. The purpose of this essay is neither to examine the southern Sudanese problem and the developments that took place during the civil war, nor to discuss as to which side was right and whether the developments constituted war crimes. The point to be emphasised is that the struggle in southern Sudan was a civil war and the use of force by the Sudanese government against a separatist movement was legitimate.  


In accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005, a referandum was held in Southern Sudan in 2011 and the southern part of the country eventually bacame an independent state. During the colonial era, the British rulers created a buffer zone between the eighth and tenth parallels and banned the movement of those in north to the south and vice versaTherefore, this buffer zone demarcted by Britain constituted a de facto border/frontier. With Southern Sudan becoming independent in 2011, this line drawn in the past became the official border between the two countries. In accordance with this border, the State of Southern Kordafan lies in the north of Sudan. There is something wrong with this, no matter how logical the description above appears to be The State of Southern Kardofan sided with the SPLA against the Sudanese government in Khartum during the civil war. The political elites of this state wanted to join Southern Sudan after the declaration of independence. Prior to the referandum to be held in 2001, the  government of Sudan had said that they would respect the decision if the Southern Sudan chose to become independent as part of the agreement signed in 2005; in fact this was what happned. However, Omar al-Bashir did not accept the separation of a region lying within his borders when the anti-government riots took place in Southern Kordafan and particularly Abyei. When some armed groups in Southern Kordafan supporting the SPLA revolted, the Sudanese goverment asked the army to supress the rebellions.  


As it is seen, both the civil war against SPLA that lasted till 2005 and the violent events that took place in Sourthern Kordafan are separatist movements that might result in the dismemberment of a country. Just as a state cannot tolerate the existence of an armed group within its borders, it has the right of struggle against the forces that target its territorial integrity This does not justify the use of excessive force by the Sudanese government, yet this is legal because the use of force by the government took place against an internal threat targeting the union and soverignty of the state. Apart from some cases which are dubious, Sudan did not organize attacks against villages and other areas inhabited by civilans through war planes during the military struggle against the SPLA for the Souhern Sudan. However, the Syrian regime attacked some areas populated by civilians in 2012, even on  days of religious events which are held to sacred.    


The demonstrations began as peaceful marches and transpired as protest activities attesting to the unhappines of the people with their rulers. The support of the Syrian people to the demonstrations increased and the tone of the slogans sharpened, as many people lost their life when the Syrian security forces fired against the unarmed protestors in numerous  events. The Syrian army chose to increase the degree of violence following the demonstrations which were organized more frequently and with the participation of more people. However, the situation in Sudan is different. SPLA began an armed struggle when Sudan declared its independence in 1956. Put another way, despite the fact that Sudan gained its independence on 1 January 1956, the official ceremony organized that day had been the celebration of another decision that was made a few months ago. The southern Sudanese opposition groups began their armed struggle before the country gained its independence officially. In short, the southern Sudanese had not tried to resolve their problems peacefully by voicing their demands for independence through legitimate platforms in politics.  


The Darfur Question and the Sudan-Syria Comparison

 One of the reasons lying behind the criticisms leveled against Turkey due to its improving relations with Sudan is the perception that ‘the Arabs’ are committing genocide crime in Darfur by systematically killing ‘the Africans’.  The attention of many people in Turkey have been directed to the developments in Sudan with the growing demands for trying the Sudanese government, and particularly the President Omar al-Bashir, in the International Criminal Court. It would be appropriate to divide the developments in Darfur into two periods In the first period, between 1987 and 1989, an intercommunal war at local level took place between the tribes which own lands and the ones which don’t. In the second period, the government got involved in the issue after the armed groups extended their soverignty in the region following the escalation of clashes among tribes at local level in 2003 and organization of armed attacks against the garrisons of the Sudanese government. Thereafter, this issue began to attract global attention after international civil society organizations brought this issue to the agenda of the international community within the framework of  discussions held on genocide.

The main factor lying at the root of the local clashes in Darfur is that the arable land in the region had been taken away from some tribes and given to others during the colonial era. Particularly, the changing geographical and climate conditions in the 1990s played a role in the extension of this local conflict to the entire region. Because there are some studies that discuss the role of geographical and economical factors in the emergence of clashes among the tribes in Darfur, this issue will not be dealt with extensively here. The government asked the armed forces to suppress the revolt after the clashes among tribes at local level transformed into revolts against the state and spread over to the public buildings. International civil society organizations carried wrongly this civil war to the world  as something between the ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’. In fact, the concepts of ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’ have been used in this process as to define groups which have different life styles while being intermingled with each other, rather than denoting some ethnic or religious cleaveges.(2) According to the definition of the United Nations, genocide is a kind of action that aims at systematically cleansing a particular nation, ethnic or religious group as well as a race. The groups that clash in Darfur are not ethnic or religious groups but groups which have different sources of livehood.

 One of the reasons why Omar al-Bashir and the Sudanese government have been today accused of committing genocide crime is that this dispute has been politicized. The ones who appraoched the the issue from ideological and humanitarian perspectives showed the developments in Darfur as more tragic than they are and it has been tried to form the perception in world public opinion that this civil war is a genocide. For example, Robert Zoellick, who was the deputy secretary of state in the USA in charge of Africa, stated that the number of dead people in Darfur were between 60 and 160 thousands following his visit of Sudan in the beginning of 2005. By criticising, in its news-report issued in April 2005, the report of the World Health Organization that the number of deads in Darfur was 70 thousands, the Washington Post newspaper pointed out that such information did not reflect the true numbers of dead people in the region. (3)  However, the Bush administration, while defining the developments in Darfur as genocide, did not rely on these numbers. Instead, it relied on the report of the Coalition for International Justice, a civil society organization, which was prepared at the same time with the World Health Organziation, yet leaked to the public opinion earlier.  In its report following its research in the refugee camps in Chad, the CIJ claimed that the number of people who lost their life over two years since the beginning of the civil war in April 2005 is 396.563. Concerning the number of people who died in Darfur, there is a noticeable difference among the figures offered by the official of the US State Department, the World Health Organization and CIJ. Besides, in its report issued on 18 September 2004, the commission, which was authorised by the United Nations Security Council to investigate the developments in Darfur, noted the clashes in Darfur between the government forces and the rebels yet reached to the conclusion that they cannot be defined as genocide. That the George W. Bush administration relied on the information provided by some civil society organizations, rather than the United Nations, the WHO or some American bureaucrats, in defining its political stance has rendered the Darfur problem debatable and demonstrated the extent to which this issue has become politicized.   

The developments in Syria are uncomparably different from the developments in Darfur. In contrast to Darfur, the opposition circles in Syria have not adopted a military struggle in the first stage. Besides, the videos showing the developments in Syria, wich have been transmitted to the international news agencies and shared by the activists on the internet give some information about what is happening in Syria. The security forces in Syria that belong to Assad killed more then 20 thousands people and caused more than 200 thousands people to flee the country and take refugee in neighbouring countries. This information is not only confirmed by the United Nations but can also be verified by many other concrete evidences. However, it is extremely difficult to find concrete evidences to support the claim of western civil society organziations that the number of people who left Darfur to take refugee in neighbouring countries reached hundreds of thousands.  

The difference between Sebbiha and Cancavid

One of the claims of those who accuse Turkey of adopting different policies towards these two countries is that there is no difference between the two in that civilians in Syria are being killed by Sebbiha paramilitary units whereas the civilians in Sudan by the Cancavid paramilitary units. In fact, the Sebbiha paramilitary units in Syria and the group in Sudan that is called Cancavid are too different from each other. The Sebbiha paramilitary units in Syria were formed by the state and work for the state. On the other hand, the groups in Sudan that are called Cancavid are composed of nomadic groups that live in the areas close to the border with Southern Sudan. Cancavid means chevalier. The Cancavid forces were not formed by the Sudan government and do not work for the state, yet they are unoffical armed units composed of nomadic tribes in the border regions which are supported by the state in its effort to prevent the SPLA forces from penetreting to the northern part of the country. While Sebbiha is a part of the Syrian state, Cancavid is not part of the Sudanese state. What is happening in Sudan is the unlawful actions of the nomadic armed units in their clashes with the armed groups in Darfur where the authority of state eroded.  


Another difference between Sudan and Syria concerns the formation of state and the authority to govern. While the authority of Sudan government is not much felt in the areas outside of Khartum and the northeastern part of the country, the presence of the Syrian state is felt in many parts of the country. Put another way, compared to Sudan, Syria is more ‘state’. Therefore, the possiblity of the Sebbiha paramilitary units or the armed forces acting on their own in Syria is much less than this being occured in a country like Sudan where the sway of the central government is not ubiquitous.  


That the Turkish government has been exposed to criticisms of some circles due to its harsh stance against the Syrian government is not right.  It is hard to justify the Syrian armed forces that directly target civilian population and some living areas in the name of ensuring the continuity  of the Assad regime. There is no contradiction between the attitudes that Turkey has adopted towards Sudan and Syria. First of all, the developments in Syria and Sudan are completely different from each other as mentioned above.  In fact,  while the developments in Sudan occupied the agenda between 2007 and 2009, Turkish leaders in the conversations with their Sudanese counterparts, underlined that Turkey wants to see the clashes in Sudan come to an end and Turkey is ready for help in this regard. While the dispute with Southern Sudan ended with the signing of the agreement in 2005, the violence in Darfur did not last long. The negoatioations on sharing authority are still continuing between the leaders in Darfur and the Khartum administration.


1. Hasan Öztürk, Darfur’daki İç Savaşı Anlamak, Avrasya Etüdleri, 40, 2011-12,  s.123-144

2. Hasan Öztürk, Darfur veya Bir Krizi İsimlendirme Sorunu, (Erişim: 13.08.2012)


3. Darfur's Real Death Toll, The Washington Post, 24 Nisan 2005 (Erişim:13.08.2012)

4. Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General (Erişim: 05.09.2012)

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