By Jeremy Salt
These are fateful times for Turkey. It has invested heavily in the rebellion against the Syrian government. It threw its weight behind the establishment of the so-called Syrian National Council and gave sanctuary to the so-called Free Syrian Army, allowing it to use southeastern Turkey as a base from which to carry out armed attacks inside Syria. These measures have not succeeded in dislodging the Syrian government. The SNC proved dysfunctional almost from the start and while the FSA and other armed groups continue to cause havoc across Syria the real Syrian army – overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim at the level of the regular soldier – did not break down along sectarian lines but held firm and has driven the armed men from one city after another.
Turkey now has to decide what to do next. On April 1 the so-called ‘Friends of Syria’ group will meet in Istanbul. The last meeting of this ad hoc group, in Tunis a few weeks ago, was a fiasco. Saudi Arabia and Qatar left angry and frustrated because of the group’s inability to decide on any course of action, let alone the direct and open military intervention they wanted. Turkey is determined that the second meeting does not end the same way but unless the SNC can overcome its rancorous internal differences by next week and present the semblance of a united front it almost certainly will end the same way.
The ‘Friends of Syria’ are almost as divided as the SNC. Saudi Arabia and Qatar lead the hardliners. In what has to be seen as part of their campaign against Iran and rising Shi’a influence across the region, they want the Syrian government destroyed and the Alawis permanently removed as a significant factor in the Syrian socio-political equation. The western governments seem divided. Britain has recently been more aggressive than the US, as if the US administration is having second thoughts about the strategy it has pursued so far, given that it has no control over an armed opposition which includes salafists, takfiris and Al Qaida in Syria, all of them urged on by Ayman al Zawahiri and ranting hate-filled sheikhs. The rest of the states in this group will follow the lead set by the big boys.
It is now clear that up to this point, Turkish policy towards Syria has failed. It was based on the assumption that the Assad government could not last. The abuse of Bashar al Assad, a coward, a man feeding on the blood of his own people, according to the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was a clear sign that the government did not expect to be dealing with him for much longer. It was only a matter of time before he fell, weeks if not months. Committing Turkey to regime change in Syria, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, sponsored the establishment of the SNC and gave sanctuary to the FSA. From its camps the members of this body crossed the border to kill Syrian soldiers: its commander, Riad al Assad, openly declared his intentions.
The revolutionary nature of this policy has to be acknowledged. Not since the establishment of the republic in 1923 has a Turkish government ever adopted such an openly aggressive policy towards a neighboring country. In giving sanctuary to armed men operating across the border and seeking regime change in Damascus, Erdogan and Davutoglu have gone where no Turkish government has gone before them. Turkish governments have sent the army into action before but not without being directly provoked. Intervention in Cyprus in 1974, ahead of annexation by Greece, and hot pursuit of PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) guerillas after their attacks on Turkish soldiers and civilians are cases in point.
The miscalculations of the Turkish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have been based on a multilayered failure to correctly read the situation in Syria. Neither of them have ever acknowledged the scale of the violence being directed against the Syrian army and civilians by various groups of armed men. Between them the FSA and other groups (including Al Qaida in Syria) have killed thousands of soldiers and civilians. They have also engaged in widespread sabotage of infrastructure, including railways and oil pipelines, and terrorist bombings in Damascus and Aleppo which have killed dozens of people. They have not just been armed with primitive weapons, as Ahmet Davutoglu has claimed, although the phrase is relative (compared to the weaponry available to the Syrian army) and the spread and availability of weapons has been uneven. The hundreds if not thousands of armed men who entrenched themselves inside Homs fought the army with rocket propelled grenade launchers and anti-tank missiles as well as light weapons. The armed groups are also equipped with sophisticated communications and night fighting equipment.
In launching personal attacks on Bashar al Assad the Turkish Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister either did not know or refused to acknowledge that he has a strong base of popularity amongst his own people. Not everyone likes him, as even he acknowledged in his interview with Barbara Walters, but a large number of Syrians do. They know what the West and its gulf allies had in store for them, armed intervention on the Libyan model but with far more destructive consequences. Looking for a way out of an ugly situation, they declared their choice in February. Of the 14.5 million people on the voting roll, just over eight million (57 per cent) cast their ballots in a referendum on changes to the constitution.
Of this eight million, 89.4 per cent supported constitutional amendments which remove the Arab Baath Socialist Party from leadership of state and society and create a multiparty system. The state will no longer have a planned socialist economy but will be based on private enterprise. The article stipulating that the president must be a Muslim was criticized by Christians. Other articles came in for criticism but on balance the way out provided by constitutional change seemed to these eight million Syrians the best of all possible options and certainly better than the violence of the past year. This seemed to be a rational choice. However, refusing to accept any solution that does not involve the destruction of the Syrian government, the armed groups, the SNC (dominated by exiles) and their foreign backers and the ‘activists’ all dismissed the referendum out of hand. None of them could or did produce any evidence of vote-rigging. Clearly, the wishes of the Syrian people as expressed in the referendum have no meaning for them at all.
While the options are narrowing the risks are increasing. One volatile element in the situation which has not been given so much attention is the sectarian dimension on both sides of the border. Many Christians and Alevis (Alawis) in southeastern Turkey are strongly opposed to the government’s policy. Both see the Assad government as a bulwark against the kind of Muslim Brotherhood-Salafist rule the Gulf states would like to see in its place. The blood-curdling threats of Sunni Muslim sheikhs in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere against the Alawis gives them reason to fear what will happen if the secular government is brought down. Nazim Can Cicektan, a Turkish Ph.D student in the Department of History at Essex University, wrote after a recent research visit to Hatay of demonstrations against the Turkish government and the US in Antakya, where Alevis constitute about half the population. They did not ‘support’ the ruthless crackdown by the Syrian government but they were concerned at media silence over the murders by the ‘rebels’.
A recent Turkish government report concluded that Alevi perceptions of prejudice and social exclusion need to be transformed. Erdogan himself has issued his own personal assurances to the Alevis yet in the cut and thrust of politics he has been unable to resist scoring points by referring to to the Alevi background of the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Erdogan chose to tie the CHP’s opposition to the government’s line on Syria to the common Alevi/Alawi origin of Kilicdaroglu and Bashar al Assad. ‘Don’t forget that a man’s religion is the religion of his friend’ he said. ‘Tell me who your friend is and I’ll tell you who you are’. During the election campaign of 2011, as Hurriyet correspondent Sedat Ergin reported, Erdogan referred to Kilicdaroglu’s background no less than seven times.
The Kurds are another ethnic element in this mix. Murat Karayilan, the head of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), said recently that if the Turkish army crossed the border into ‘western Kurdistan’ (northern Syria) it would be resisted by Kurdish fighters. The government is now said to have a report prepared by the national intelligence agency (MIT) that the Syrian government is working hand in glove with the PKK. No evidence has been laid before the public and neither is there any evidence from the Syrian side of the government stirring up the PKK but Karayilan’s statement adds another dimension of risk to the Syrian-Turkish imbroglio.
Shortly ahead of the meeting of the ‘Friends of Syria’ the government decided to recall Turkey’s ambassador to Damascus, close the embassy and cancel THY (Turkish Airlines) flights to Damascus. Next steps will be clearer after the ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting. These ‘friends’ may decide to maintain support for the war of attrition being waged by the armed groups in the hope that the state will eventually crumble from within. They could go in the other direction and throw their weight behind a political solution through dialogue, as sought by Kofi Annan. This would involve them dropping their precondition that Bashar must go. The third option would be to take the plunge and agree on cross-border intervention. Whether dressed up as an operation aimed at the creation of a ‘buffer zone’ or a ‘humanitarian corridor’, this has to be recognised for what it would be in law, especially without the sanction of the UN Security Council – the invasion of another country with all the dire regional and global consequences one can imagine. The Turkish government has never taken this option off the table and while it can be regarded as one means of putting pressure on the Syrian government it also has to be taken seriously as a real possibility. The Saudis and some domestic couch warriors would like to see it happen but numerous other commentators are alarmed at the prospect and are advancing numerous arguments against it.
Personally, the Turkish Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister have staked a lot on the downfall of Bashar al Assad. To the extent that he is still there and apparently more in control of the situation than he was a few months ago their policy of confrontation has not worked. On previous occasions in domestic politics the Prime Minister has backed off when a policy has run into too many problems. Will prudence prevail on this occasion? After the meeting of the ‘Friends of Syria’ next week we should have the answer.
– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.