Will reversing roles help Turkey avoid war in Syria?

The strategy of "reversed roles," in which the ruling party adopts a position contrary to its traditional ideological bent, thereby forcing the opposition to take the opposite stance, was used by the Justice and Development Party with regard to the American war in Iraq. Could the same tactic be used in the ongoing Syrian conflict?

One can see in Turkish politics policy positions with regard to Syria that do not reflect the traditional ideological points of view of the ruling and opposition parties. While the Justice and Development Party (also known as the Adalet ve Partisi, or AKP) supports the west’s plans regarding the Syrian crisis, opposition parties are opposed to the Turkish government’s support. Yet the leftist Republican People's Party (in Turkish, the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or CHP), the party of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the army and other secularists in Turkey, should be supporting the policies of the West given their historic ties, while the Justice and Development Party, with its Islamist orientation, should theoretically oppose western policies.

This incongruity dates back to nearly a decade ago when the Justice and Development Party, the winner of the elections in 2002, supported Washington in the Iraq war, while ironically the Turkish military and secularists opposed that war. The fact is that the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party did not want to engage in the war in Iraq. However, the party needed to demonstrate that it had external support to strengthen its position domestically and weaken its political opponents. So the AKP deliberately chose to support American policies in Iraq, reversing its traditional position. Opponents to the ruling party and the secular Turkish army also did not take the positions they normally would have, historically always supporting the United States’ agenda in the region. At the time they opposed Turkey’s engagement in that war. While incompatible with their usual support for western policies, they opted to strongly oppose the unpopular war in Iraq to order to maintain their domestic political role as the opposition putting further pressure on the ruling party.

The result is what could be called 'reversed polarized roles'. One can see this occurring again presently in Turkish politics; both major parties are adopting positions counter to their traditional postures with regard to Syria. In the case of Iraq, this reversal benefited the ruling Justice and Development Party, particularly once it returned to its traditional position of opposing the war. On March 1, 2003 the Turkish parliament, with a majority from the ruling Justice and Development Party but also with strong support from the opposition Republican People's Party, was able to derail the vote on the memorandum of deployment of foreign troops and sending Turkish troops abroad, avoiding getting involved in the Iraq war. At the same time, from a domestic point of view, the Justice and Development Party succeeded in being able to absorb the momentum of the opposition. It turned out later that this was what the Islamist party wanted from the beginning. The Gul government's support for the United States was a tactical strategy to settle domestic political battles with the Turkish military and the secularists in its favour. An additional side benefit, however, was that ultimately this led to a more positive atmosphere between the various Turkish political groups and people. The decision not to go to war appeared as a collective decision taken by parties across the entire political spectrum.

What the Justice and Development Party did is an effective and successful application of the “theory of reversed roles” in the face of new situations or decisive decisions that need to be taken, like war and hard economic choices, where the government expects strong opposition. This strategy is used to absorb the momentum of opposition and reinforce the decision. A government or political group in power thereby leaves its political opponents with only two options: either support the decision as in keeping with their historical ideological predilections or go against it, preserving their role as opposition. 

Turkey faces a sensitive situation with regard to the Syrian crisis. I believe a reversed roles scenario is being repeated today with regard to the Syrian crisis. The country faces the possibility of engaging in a war with the Syrian regime under the impact of cumulative tensions. It is expected that in the event that a military intervention is planned for Syria the Justice and Development Party will use the same strategy it used formerly, to avoid getting embroiled in war in Iraq.

About the author

Emad Abdullah Ayasrah is an academic and political analyst.