By Riad Kahwaji
The Turkish mediation and intervention in the ongoing crisis in Syria has many people inside and outside Syria puzzled as to whether Ankara is still trying to save the threatened regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad or is Turkey orchestrating international moves to change this regime. The fast developments in Syria and the international Turkish-led diplomacy associated with it have cast ambiguity on Ankara’s actual stance. This fact caused a great deal of frustration amongst Syrian opposition activists and Arab observers. Anger with Turkey was apparent in banners and signs carried by Syrian demonstrators over the past few days criticizing Turkey for what they perceived as a “grace period” granted by Ankara for the Syrian regime to crush the current public revolt with maximum force within two weeks. They seem to believe that the meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu with President Assad in Damascus on August 9 ended with an agreement to grant Assad’s regime time to quell the rebellion by force. This feeling was reinforced by statements by Davutoglu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which they spoke of a period of 15 days given to Assad to end the repression and proceed with long-promised reforms. It was also reported by the Arab media that Erdogan had asked U.S. President Barak Obama on August 13 to postpone a statement announcing that Assad has lost legitimacy and must go.
The first question that arises here is did Ankara deliver an ultimatum to Assad or was it helping him buy time to end the revolt? Davutoglu on August 15 tried to clarify his position by denying Ankara had given any grace period for Assad to further suppress his people and asserted that Turkey’s “last words to Assad” was he must end the violence now. Erdogan had earlier vehemently criticized the Syrian regime for the brutal repression of his own people and warned that time for Assad was running out to fix the situation. These statements indicate that Ankara’s patience was running slim. Erdogan also said the situation in Syria for Turkey was not a foreign relations issue, but rather a matter of national security. On August 8 Erdogan chaired a meeting for his top security officials to discuss the situation in Syria, and Turkish Army reserves were reportedly called and deployed along the Syrian borders. Over 7000 Syrian refugees have fled the armed repression in their country to camps on the Turkish side of the border. Ankara is mostly concerned with the possibility of the situation in Syria deteriorating into a sectarian Sunni-Alawite civil war. Syria’s population is estimated to be 80 percent Muslim Sunnis and 15 percent Alwaite – an offshoot of Shiism.
The excessive use of force by the predominantly Alawite Syrian military and leadership against the largely Sunni Syrian population has aggravated the sectarian divide in the country raising threats of the country sliding into a civil war. Such a scenario would impact Turkey where an Alawite minority coexists with a Sunni majority. Moreover, the situation in Syria, which is a member of the Iranian axis, is weighing in on the already tense situation in the region due to the ongoing Saudi-Iranian cold war that has agitated the Sunni-Shiite sectarian rift. So, the Syrian crisis could spark a regional ethno-sectarian war – Shiite-Alawaite-Persian against Sunni-Arabs – that would drag the United States, Israel and other powers into it.
For Ankara to help Assad buy time means that Turkish officials do believe Assad wants to implement reforms and is serious about ending his bloody repressive methods. Some analysts wonder that taking into consideration ongoing events in Syria and the history of the regime there, why Mr. Davutoglu was still a bit hopeful or have some belief that Assad would implement reforms and end violence. Subsequent events in Syria that followed the Assad-Davutoglu meetings showed a near-theatrical display by the Syrian military that conducted a redeployment of its troops in and around of the city of Hama under the pretext of withdrawing from the city. The Syrian military has since stormed the city of Latakiya and other districts and towns in the provinces of Homs, Hama and Damascus killing and wounding scores of unarmed civilians. Hence, brutal repression continued with no signs of an end to the public revolt that has continued day and night in many parts of the country. So the absence of any real benefit to Ankara helping a failing regime and risking its good reputation and standing in the Arab world to rescue a regime that has proven incapable of helping itself leads us to conclude that Turkey has likely delivered an ultimatum to Assad.
Official sources in Qatar believe the Assad regime has once again misread the Turkish message and saw it as a break to exert more force to crush the public rebellion. They believe the Turkish move has actually pushed Damascus into a trap of its own making, because by increasing the violence against the people it is driving more countries to abandon the Assad regime and support a U.S.-Saudi led international campaign to topple the Syrian regime through tough international sanctions. The United Nations Security Council will be holding weekly meetings on Syria, and its stance would likely become stronger with time until it reaches the level of imposing sanctions.
Another question that presents itself is what would Ankara do if the Syrian regime, as widely expected, did not stop its brutal use of force against the people? There is not a clear public view on this question, although the Turkish press has quoted unnamed sources as saying Ankara would break up with the Syrian regime, impose tough sanctions and assist the Syrian opposition in efforts to bring down Assad. If so, this would be a massive move by Turkey because it would place it in an unprecedented high place in the region and the Arab world. The angry anti-Assad Arab public opinion is disappointed with the poor performance by Arab leaders in dealing with the Syrian crisis and would most certainly reflect positively in so many ways on Arab-Turkish relations, present and future. A Turkish military intervention to create a safe-zone or support an international move remains a possibility although it appears unlikely for now. The August 8 strong speech by Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz on Syria that coincided with Turkish statements and moves showed early signs of Arab countries fixing to take a stance of the Syrian regime’s actions. A strong Arab and Turkish stance, backed by international action, would possibly lead to the collapse of the Syrian regime within a short period of time, sparing its country a bloody civil war. Until then the formidable strong will of the unarmed Syrian people will be the only force confronting the regime’s brutality, and it can win.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA