In 2010, when Istanbul was nominated for the first time as European Capital of Culture, we had gone to Damascus for the preliminary preparations of the documentary "The Cities of Istanbul." The documentary's main aim was to investigate relations between the greatest cities of the Ottoman period and the capital, Istanbul. Several of these cities are the capital of Middle Eastern countries today, and the Ottoman Empire conducted its relations with its provinces via its capital. Some of the main themes that we underline in the documentary are the relationships between administration, common history, culture, family bonds, literature and architecture throughout the empire. It was a daunting task, as the documentary was devoted to the examination of cultural continuity in the Ottoman Empire, blended across a history of five centuries. Thus, the aim of the documentary, which came across clearly in the 18 episodes, was to demonstrate "the indivisibility of the empire's constituent parts." Although they are now strictly separated from each other by modern nation-state borders, the documentary demonstrated the "natural" continuity of history and culture among the capitals of the region.
On our trip to Damascus, we experienced great hospitality, where the Syrians saluted us by calling out the names of the-then president and prime minister, Abdullah Gül and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The affection that the Syrian people felt toward Turkey and its leaders was truly unmatched. In one of the coffee houses – the Middle Eastern public space par excellence – a crowd of soldiers was watching the Turkish television series "Valley of the Wolves." Later on, as the customer profile changed to a younger generation, the Turkish series "Poplar Winds" came on in the coffee house. The historical places and daily traditions along with the famous Ottoman neighborhoods provided a special atmosphere overwhelmingly similar to those of Istanbul.
If free elections were held that very day and a stable civilian government had emerged, Turkish-Syrian relations would have been built upon a firmer and more solid ground than that of the Ottoman era. For whatever reason, instead the situation erupted, and hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed, millions of people have become refugees and Syrian women and children are condemned to indescribable traumas due to the Syrian civil war. From terrorist organizations and organized crime, to human and arms smugglers, Syria has unfortunately become one of the main realms where modern vampires feed on the blood of the defenseless. Therefore, Syrians are now too exhausted and traumatized to endure such inexpressible pain, let alone fight against internal oppression and external plots in their country.
In the early phases of the Syrian civil war, a kind of hope for peace, which would be realized under the arbitration of Turkey, Iran and Egypt under Mohammed Morsi, appeared for a brief moment. Yet, internal oppression in Syria, combined with international competition over the region, has prevented the completion of the reconciliation process and the invaluable hope for peace has long faded away.
It is an incontestable historical fact that the British Empire laid out and then broke up territories in the Middle East over the previous century. At the moment when the course of history provided an invaluable opportunity to Turkey and Iran – the two greatest historical states of the Islamic region – to resolve the civil war within a smaller Muslim country, they could have taken the lead role in the region from the British and the Americans. Such a resolution led by the internal leaders of the region would then set an example for the troubled countries of Iraq, Yemen and Libya, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as a curse on the Islamic world, would never have been formed in the first place.
I believe that Western states are not greatly concerned about the ongoing bloodshed in Syria, as a war of 10 years occurring in each decade is but a systematic reflection of the Western mentality toward the Middle East.
About the author
İhsan Aktaş is Chairman of the Board of GENAR Research Company. He is an academic at the Department of Communication at Istanbul Medipol University.