As dialogue fails, Turkey arrives at critical crossroads with Syria



Protestors in Syria hold up a banner in Arabic that says ‘Don’t you understand that we are a people who will bow only to Allah, or have you stopped listening,’ during a demonstration against the Assad regime.
Although Turkey has tried for months to knit Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and democratic reforms together, the increasing death toll and the news of tanks rolling into on one city after another indicate that it might be high time for Turkey to come up with a whole new strategy, possibly one that looks to leave Assad in a tight spot with reforms being the only way out, or to turn to the alternatives, which doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance in the shadow Assad’s presence still casts.
As Turkey’s attempts at dialogue with the Syrian regime seem to have failed given the Syrian regime’s insistence on shelling its own cities, Turkish officials are steering towards a different approach: to disengage and isolate the Syrian administration, which observers believe is sure to change things in Syria, which will lose the support of one of its main allies in the region as a result.

Although Turkish officials blinked at the prospect of stalled diplomacy with “final warnings” to the country, allowing less room for tolerance and support in their calls upon the Syrian regime, officials still remain tight lipped on what Turkey’s next step will be, a much debated mystery that hints at tactful planning in Ankara. The experts who advise severing the ties weigh in heavier in the debate whether Turkey has come to the end of the road with the current regime in Syria, a long-time ally and enemy, but always a neighbor.

However, not all experts and observers agree that Turkey should close the chapter of dialogue with Syria and revert to its stance against the country as it did back in the 1990s, when the countries’ distaste for each other based on Syria’s alleged support for terrorism targeting Turkey grew strong enough to bring the countries to the brink of war.

“Turkey is a key interlocutor; it has a different role in the region than the rest of the international community,” offered Matthew Duss, a national security policy analyst at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, as he noted that the United States already imposed a number of sanctions on Syria. “We need to understand that Turkey is not going to play the same role as the others,” he asserted, well aware of the possible risks the fallout of Syrian instability may bring to the region.

Although Duss hinted a “tougher stance” from Turkey would be much appreciated by the international community in a phone interview with Sunday’s Zaman, he also pointed at the risks a state collapse would pose for Turkey with regard to the serious possibility of an influx of refugees across the lengthy common border between the countries.

“The risks, I feel, go a long way in explaining the slow pace of escalating rhetoric from Turkey,” the expert said in words that clarified the meticulous approach of Turkish officials on the issue. “Nobody wants to see Syria collapse.”

Instead of a disengagement policy that “gets you a momentary satisfaction, but yields no benefits,” Duss, who is quite familiar with the history of the region and Turkish-Syrian relations, proposed going right to the process of sanctions that would put Assad in a bind but would not hurt civilians. “But we have to be careful not to fall in the same spot as we did in Iraq,” the expert warned, referring to the inefficiency of piling up too many sanctions against regimes which place the burdens of limitations on their people. According to a UNICEF survey published in 1999, sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations Security Council were a serious factor in the trend that children under the age of 5 were dying at more than twice the rate they were before the sanctions were imposed in 1990.

Syria will fall despite efforts, experts predict

As far as disengagement is concerned, Duss expressed his belief that the international community, as well as Turkey, needed to keep the connection up and have their officials on the ground in Syria. “More information is better,” he said, adding that engagement would provide other options for pressure. “Although it is frustrating to recognize it,” Duss said, “there is very little we can do to decisively change the situation for the better in Syria,” as he reiterated the belief that the world needs to make clear to the forces of oppression in Syria that “there will be a moment of accountability for what they are doing right now.”

Placing their bets on the continuation of the Assad’s regime’s refusal to mind the warnings, some analysts believe that Assad has come to the end of the road, and that there is nothing anyone can do to save his regime from imminent doom. As far as Turkish expectations from the Assad regime are concerned, Gary Gambill, the general editor of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, stated that it is not possible for Assad to “put down the sword,” given his Alawite-dominated regime’s “extraordinarily thin claim to represent the will of his predominantly Sunni subjects.” The expert stated that the prospect of Assad’s approval of democratic reforms, the right to demonstrate and the right to free speech would defy the logics of his own power system as he would have “millions of demonstrators converging on Damascus,” if he ever did that.

“The Syrian conflict is inevitably headed towards civil war, and there is nothing Turkey can do to avoid that,” Gambill stated as a matter of fact in e-mail correspondence with Sunday’s Zaman, adding that Turkey would sooner or later be forced to intervene, “if only because the rest of the world is increasingly looking to Ankara for regional leadership.” He suggested there were two things Turkey could do to help with the situation and control the fallout: “limit the duration and destructiveness of the war to come, and make sure the good guys win.” However, Gambill noted that, given the current atmosphere in the region, the good guys are not that easy to find in Syria.

Elaborating on Turkey’s fate to get involved in Syria both in the case of a consensus, or in the more probable option of civil war, Gambill stated that “Turkey will have to assume a responsibility for ensuring the new Syrian leadership respects the liberties of all its citizens,” should the Assad regime be toppled as a consequence of the Syrian revolts. Gambill, however, also stated that the Sunni protestors would have a hard time bringing Assad down amidst the support of the many Alawites, Christians and Shiites in Syria for the leader “out of fear of the consequences of a Sunni Islamist takeover,” the power of which was at times used to that effect prior to the Baathist takeover.

For observers, in the lack of a powerful “good guy” that is capable of rising to the occasion when the Assad regime finally calls it quits, a name buried deep down in the turbulent Syrian political history resurfaces: Abdul Halim Khaddam.

A loyal friend of Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad, Khaddam served Syria as foreign minister for 15 years and spent 20 more as vice president, but upon Hafez Assad’s death and the election of Bashar, who was the only candidate bidding for his father’s chair, Khaddam’s dissent within Syrian politics grew to the point that he resigned in 2005 and left the country for France to form a government in exile, but without much support from the Arab world or Western countries.

Being one of the very few Sunnis who rose to incredible power amidst the domination of Alawite officials Khaddam was regarded as a strong rival to Bashar al-Assad due to his strong connections inside Lebanon and his clout with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, Khaddam’s record is not clear on the massacres and assassinations that took place during the reign of the Assad family, for which he shares the guilt.

Despite the shady wealth Khaddam accumulated throughout the 40 years he spent as a part of the Syrian regime, he lacks political support and credibility in the international arena.

It remains to be seen whether the doom of the Assad family will prove to be a much-sought-after chance for revenge for Assad’s enemies who see the crisis as an opportunity to seize the power that was denied them all those years, or if it will open a path for new leaders to rise.

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