by editor | 19th June 2011 8:29 am
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu shakes hand with Syrian President Assad’s special envoy, Hasan Turkmani, during the latter’s official visit to the Turkish capital last week.
For the time being, nobody, including the United States, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and a key NATO ally of Turkey, is able to foresee what the near future will bring in Syria, and there is great ambiguity over the benefits of a UNSC resolution which would condemn Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime for its brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrators, with reports from fleeing refugees suggesting there is a sectarian nature to the violence.
The issue is far more complicated and prone to further difficulties for Turkey as the next-door neighbor of Syria, which in the last few years has assumed that its bilateral relations with Syria were guided by the principles of Turkey’s policy of seeking “zero problems” with neighbors in its diplomatic efforts in the region. As the international pressure builds against Assad’s regime, Turkey has sharpened its tone toward Syria over the past few days, criticizing President Assad for not living up to his promises to make reforms. PM Recep Tayyip Erdo?an slammed Assad’s younger brother, Maher Assad, the mastermind behind the violent crackdown on protesters, demanding an end to Assad’s 11 years of dictatorial rule.
Syrian President Assad’s special envoy Hasan Turkmani was in Ankara earlier this week and had separate lengthy talks with both Erdo?an and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu. At both of the meetings, Turkmani had to face the blunt messages of Turkey as Ankara is increasingly becoming angry over the burgeoning humanitarian crisis. Erdo?an and Davuto?lu told Turkmani that Turkey’s patience has run out with regard to the promise of reforms in the country.
Although Turkmani told the two that “Syria is ready to introduce reforms and take into consideration the demands raised by the anti-government protest movement,” the response he found in the Turkish capital was that Turkey “wants deeds now, but no more words.”
A noteworthy fact within the messages delivered by top Turkish leaders is that Assad’s brother Maher’s actions led to the president being singled out for criticism by Turkey for the offensive on Syrian villages. Apparently, Ankara is taking into consideration the high probability that Assad has had a hard time controlling the military and the security apparatus.
Amidst the intense and rapidly deteriorating conditions on the ground, with more and more refugees flocking to Turkey from its southern neighbor, some commentators and politicians suggest that the crisis in neighboring Syria has called into question Turkey’s policy of seeking “zero problems” with neighbors.
These commentators have missed the point that Turkey’s diplomatic efforts in the region now enable Ankara to hold a unique dialogue with Damascus and to urge them to carry out reforms that could help end an uprising against authoritarian rule.
And yet again, those suggesting that “zero-problems with neighbors” collapsed with the crisis in the next-door neighbor are forgetting the fact that Turkey has constantly stressed that this policy is an ideal, that it is not naïve, and that it is similar to what Mustafa Kemal once said: “Peace in the country, peace in the world.”
“Engagement policy is expected to prevail — at least for some time. But there will be thresholds,” a senior diplomat told Sunday’s Zaman, indicating that Ankara is very close to running out of patience.
“In the past, we defended the engagement policy because it was the right thing to do at that time,” the same diplomat, speaking under customary condition of anonymity, went on saying. “But we will not stand by the wrongdoing in Syria, that’s for sure,” the diplomat briefly remarked.
Damascus and lack of understanding
As early as February 2011, when Prime Minister Erdo?an and Syrian President Assad met in Aleppo following the landmark ground-breaking ceremony for the Friendship Dam on the Asi River in Hatay, there were very blunt warnings delivered to the Syrian side behind closed doors, Sunday’s Zaman learned from a Turkish government official.
Later, the same kind of blunt messages were personally issued by both Davuto?lu and chief of the National Intelligence Organization (M?T) Hakan Fidan. When the response disappointed Ankara, Turkish leaders — in unison — started to deliver their messages and warnings to Damascus publicly.
On Monday Davuto?lu headed a lengthy political review meeting with top bureaucrats involved in the ongoing Syrian crisis. The meeting at the Foreign Ministry came a day after thousands of pro-regime protesters marched toward the Turkish Embassy in Damascus at a time when Turkey said it would keep its gates open for Syrian refugees fleeing a violent crackdown in a town near the Turkish border.
Ambassador Halit Çevik, the deputy undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry for Middle East affairs, Turkey’s Ambassador to Syria Ömer Önhon and Turkey’s Ambassador to Lebanon ?nan Özy?ld?z also participated in the three-hour-long meeting, diplomatic sources told Sunday’s Zaman.
A crowd of close to 2,000 pro-regime protesters rallied on Sunday, June 12, near the Turkish Embassy in Damascus, trying to bring down the Turkish flag. The attempt was thwarted by embassy security while Syrian security forces helped disperse the crowd.
Speaking to the Cihan news agency, Ambassador Önhon said the crowd chanted slogans against Turkey while marching toward the embassy. He said the crowd broke the glass covers of billboards promoting Turkey near the embassy. The angry crowd also planted a Syrian flag at the gate of the diplomatic mission, the ambassador said.
Meanwhile, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad expressed sorrow over the attack in a telephone conversation with Önhon. Mikdad also pledged to the ambassador that these types of attacks will not be repeated again.
Erdo?an said in a televised interview on June 9 that he spoke with Assad over the phone several days ago but complained that the Syrian government had shrugged off his calls. “I spoke with Mr. Bashar al-Assad four or five days ago. I explained this situation very clearly and openly. Despite this, they take this very lightly. And sadly they tell us different things,” Erdo?an said.
Just two days after Erdo?an’s remarks, a pro-regime Syrian official in Damascus said unceasing unrest in the country is part of a Western conspiracy that aims to put the region under Turkish control.
“The West wants to put the region under Turkish control like in the Ottoman days,” the pro-regime figure in Damascus was quoted as saying in an article published on June 12 in Abu Dhabi-based daily The National. The report said an anti-Turkey backlash is now under way in Syria, with state-controlled media accusing Ankara of trying to resurrect the Ottoman Empire and re-establish control over the Middle East.
“Turkey is a NATO member and embodies a safe kind of Islam for the West, so they have done a deal to give everything to Ankara,” the official said in remarks that were not later denied. Maintaining that Damascus was far from alone and remained a powerful regional political player, the official said: “The plot will not work in the end. Syria still has some cards. It has Iran and Hezbollah.” In line with Ankara’s diplomatic conventions, when approached by Sunday’s Zaman for their reaction to the remarks reported by The National, Turkish diplomatic sources declined to comment on anonymous remarks by the unnamed Syrian official.
Nonetheless, this is what a Turkish governmental official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue, told Sunday’s Zaman regarding the rally in front of the Turkish Embassy: “If the Syrian administration is behind the protest in front of the Turkish Embassy, they are definitely making a grave mistake. It shows that they haven’t fully comprehended that we haven’t yet abandoned our engagement policy and we are not burning the bridges yet.”
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