When Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu landed in Damascus on Tuesday, one Syrian official was startled by how serious the Turkish guest acted on getting off the airplane. It was a chilly “How do you do?,” no doubt. Smiling, the Syrian official looked at him and said, “Mr Minister, no kisses?”
Realizing how tense the situation was, Davutoglu then warmly embraced and kissed his Syrian hosts, as is customarily done in Arab and Islamic fashion.
Davutoglu, after all, is considered a friend by the Syrians, despite recent tension between Ankara and Damascus. As an academic specialized in late Ottoman history, he often visited the Syrian capital, long before becoming foreign minister in 2009.
Davutoglu is the architect of Turkey’s neo-Ottomanism; he has worked hard to re-establish strong political, cultural, economic and social ties with countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire – and the gates to the Arab world, as far as he is concerned, pass through Damascus.
But Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II was certainly not why Davutoglu was in Damascus on Tuesday.
Rather, he came to stress what had earlier been said by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on August 6, about the need to democratize Syria from within – an idea on which Syrian authorities agree, in principle.
Hours before his arrival, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain had all withdrawn their ambassadors from Damascus, in addition to Qatar and Italy. Their move came after Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah came out with a public appeal to the people of Syria, calling for an end to the violence.
The United Nations Security Council was trying to hammer out a resolution against the Syrian government, with no luck thanks to a strong veto from China, South Africa, Brazil and Russia. But even the Russian position was becoming wobbly, the Turks feared, after President Dmitry Medvedev warned that if real reforms were not implemented, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad would suffer a “sad fate”.
World leaders from United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Pope Benedict XVI and US President Barack Obama had all called on Damascus to end military operations in Hama and Deir ez-Zour, two cities that according to human-rights groups suffered a death toll of no less than 150 on the first day of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
Davutoglu’s message was that the Syrian army needed to “return to its barracks” and military operations needed to stop “as soon as possible”.
Davutoglu’s remarks came as no surprise to the Syrians. The Turks have been very vocal about Syrian affairs since the riots began. Over and over, they have stressed their willingness to help administratively, politically and technically – even training Syrian riot police.
They reportedly even translated their own laws from Turkish into Arabic and sent them to the Syrians “for reference”. The tone was especially high ahead of Turkish elections in June. After Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won, the prime minister’s remarks on Syria began to slowly soften. The military operation in Hama on July 31, however, seemed to awaken a Turkish appetite for engagement, with Erdogan calling on Syria to “solve” the Syrian problem.
All was not lost, Davutoglu seemed to be saying: plenty can still be done if serious political reforms are carried out. He has suggested power-sharing with the opposition, a new constitution, and a multi-party system that ends the Ba’ath Party’s monopoly over power (which has lasted since 1963).
That means an end to arbitrary arrests, a release of all political prisoners, a free press, an uncorrupted judiciary, along with free and internationally observed parliamentary and presidential elections. Real dialogue, he noted, needed to include the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
That party, a strong player in the Syrian underground, tried and failed with other groups to topple the regime in Hama in 1982. The uprising was squashed by the army, with deaths cited at anywhere between 20,000 and 40,000.
The Brotherhood is close to Erdogan’s AKP and some members have shown up in Turkey to attend Syrian opposition meetings since March. Not talking to them, the Turks have said, will not make them go away. On the contrary, it will only radicalize them and push them further down into the Syrian underground.
If the Syrians were to ask, Turkey would be willing to play intermediary between Damascus and the Brotherhood. All pledges of reform, warned Davutoglu, “would convince neither the Syrian people nor the international community as long as people are being killed every day”.
The Syrians responded positively on all of the Turkish minister’s demands, but drew a clear parallel between “peaceful demonstrators” and “armed gangs” attacking government property and killing army officers and security personnel.
That story, it must be noted, is being publicly challenged both by the Syrian opposition and many in the international community, including the United States, but not by the Turks. To date, they feel that both the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government are saying the truth.
After returning home, Davutoglu spoke by phone with his US counterpart, Hillary Clinton, saying: “If Syria begins to take steps in line with the demands of its people and ends the bloodshed, and if the international community unites to speak in one voice on the issue, the process may advance in a way that would ease everybody’s concerns.”
The following day, Turkey’s ambassador to Damascus, Omer Onhon, toured Hama, a city in the Syrian midland that erupted against the Ba’ath regime three times, in 1964, 1982 and now in 2011. He met residents, prayed with them at a mosque and reported that the Syrian army had indeed withdrawn from the city – after having attacked on July 31 to “eliminate armed groups”, as Syrian TV put it.
Onhon, a seasoned diplomat who knows Syria well and served in Damascus in the 1990s, reported that the city was free from tanks and heavy weaponry “but lacked activity and vivacity”.
Access to Hama was a direct response to the Davutoglu visit, welcomed at the highest level in Turkey where Erdogan said, “This is very, very important as it shows that our initiative has produced a positive result. We hope that things are fully completed within a period of 10-15 days and steps are taken regarding the reform process in Syria.”
Step II, as far as the Turkish foreign minister was concerned, was media access to Hama. It too materialized as 11 Turkish journalists were allowed into the city on Thursday.
Clearly, the Turks are seeking a larger, more public and internationally mandated role in Syria, albeit Syria-sanctioned. “Big brother Turkey” has every reason to seek stability and democracy in Syria – regime change in Damascus, for the Turks, would be a nightmare come to life .
The personal relationship between Assad and Erdogan remains strong. The two countries still see eye-to-eye on a variety of issues – non-state players like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, border security, the future of Iraq, the Kurds, Iran.
Turkey is best positioned to broker a Syrian-Israeli deal, which it tried to achieve in 2008, before the war on Gaza. Trade volume between the countries, which stood at US$2.5 billion in 2008, is expected to reach $5 billion by 2012.
A few years back, during one of his numerous visits to Syria, Erdogan spoke to a Syrian-Turkish Business Council, calling on Syrians to follow the Turkish reform model. “Our exports,” he explained, “were at $36 billion and then reached $114 billion over a five-year period.” This easily can be done in Syria. All you need is willpower, and only then will you be able to extract milk even from the male goat! We are willing to put our hand in yours.”
While that role carried a strong economic twist, it cannot be done today without a serious political partnership that accepts, invites and facilitates a Turkish mediation role in the Syrian crisis.
Davutoglu wanted his friends in Damascus to understand that Turkey has no plans to mentor, tutor or conquer – all it wants is to help settle the mess while being fair both to the Syrian government and the Syrian people.
A confidence built rather delicately by both Erdogan and Assad during the years 2003-2010 needs to be resurrected by both leaders. Assad and Erdogan need to give one another the benefit of the doubt so that real reforms can see the light in Syria.
This article appeared in Asia Times