Davuto?lu to deliver harsh message to Damascus

EM?NE KART/CEREN KUMOVA
?STANBUL/ANKARA

At a time when those questioning the legitimacy of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule have started to be heard by the international community, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu is scheduled to depart Tuesday for Damascus for a one-day visit during which Syrian officials will receive a blunt message from Turkey as Ankara has run out of patience against the crackdown on protesters.
“A true friend tells the bitter truth” is a popular Turkish proverb which has been regularly been applied by Turkey’s leaders when a warning message has had to be sent to a country with which Turkey has good relations.

“In the case concerning neighboring Syria, the Damascus administration will be personally given a harsh message instead of a bitterly worded message from a country ally,” a senior Turkish diplomat told Today’s Zaman on Monday. “The issue is basically a matter of principle for us,” the same diplomat, who spoke under customary condition of anonymity, added, referring to the intensifying government crackdown on protesters that has so far left more than 1,700 unarmed protesters dead since March, according to activists and human rights groups.

“The message from Turkey will from now on be more strict, tough and clear,” the Turkish diplomat reiterated, emphasizing that Foreign Minister Davuto?lu will deliver only’s Turkey’s message to Damascus and is not going there to convey a message from a third country or the international community.

Davuto?lu’s visit was announced by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an on Saturday during a speech at an iftar event in ?stanbul, which drew a harsh response from Syria. The prime minister indicated the end of Turkey’s patience with the Syrian administration due to their constant refusal to initiate democratic reforms.

The diplomatic row between the countries on Sunday is further evidence that relations between the two countries have cooled since Turkey’s call for a peaceful initiation of democratic reforms, which has been met with more bloodshed by Syria.

An article published in the Sunday Guardian, a leading UK newspaper, argued that Turkey may consider punitive steps ranging from diplomatic and economic measures targeting the regime to the setting up of some kind of safe haven inside northern Syria policed by the Turkish military. “If such a risky intervention were undertaken, Turkey would be within its rights, following the Libyan model, to call on fellow NATO members, including Britain, for support,” the Guardian said.

Nevertheless, officials in Ankara told Today’s Zaman that it is “early” to talk about measures, while one official ruled out setting up a safe haven.

“There is not even any need for such a safe haven since thousands of Syrians who had fled the government crackdown on anti-regime protests have already returned,” a Turkish official said.

The official, who requested to remain anonymous, also said that Turkey does not intend to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus in line with Ankara’s diplomatic conventions, which states that Turkey should not close an embassy abroad unless there is a serious security threat.

Ability to talk

In a harsh response to Erdo?an’s decision to send the foreign minister to Syria to convey “a decisive message” from Turkey, Syria rebuffed the decision, with Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior advisor to President Bashar, saying Syria was ready to deliver an “even more decisive one,” signaling the refusal of Syrian officials to comply with reforms despite Turkey warning that it is “at the end of its patience.”

“If Davuto?lu is to deliver a decisive message to Syria, he will receive an even more decisive reply regarding Turkey’s stance, which has failed to condemn the brutal killings and crimes committed by armed terrorist groups against civilians, the military and police until now,” Shaaban was quoted as saying by the Syrian state-run Sana news agency on Sunday.

Officials in Ankara have played down the reaction voiced by Shaaban, with one diplomat calling it an attempt to “save face.”

“What matters right now is the fact that Turkey is delivering a clear and harsh message to Syria and while doing this, it is also able to visit the neighboring country. We are the only country that can both deliver this message and visit the country at the same time. Yet, like everybody else, we also have a limit of toleration. We will tell the administration that unless the violence does not stop, it will be held responsible before the history and maintenance of their regime is endangered,” a second senior Turkish diplomat told Today’s Zaman.

“Holding face-to-face talks may yield a different result, we are going there with this hope. Otherwise, if we had no hope, we would not go there at all,” the second diplomat, speaking again on condition of anonymity, said when asked whether he had any hope that Assad’s regime’s stance would change.

What Davuto?lu will find in Damascus?

According to Osman Bahad?r Dinçer, of the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), the Ba’ath regime is not rational so one cannot expect to see it reacting rationally.

“While Syria is struggling with a matter of life and death, fighting for its life with no regards to rules or rationality is the last thing you would expect from it. Turkey’s initiative, as late as it is, is significant for the region but it is hard to believe it will change anything in Syria. I think it is pretty much a stillborn project that will not be able to push Syria, although we all wish it could,” Dinçer, a Middle East expert, told Today’s Zaman on Monday.

“Turkey says it will send a warning, but it has been met with various interpretations in the Arab world. A last warning to Assad also means cutting the leader slack in the expected reform process. But if Turkey is visiting Syria to deliver a personal ‘enough is enough, I am out’ message, then it means increased pressure on the Ba’ath Party. Any green light to Assad will be in Turkey’s disadvantage,” he added.

Ufuk Uluta?, also a Middle East expert at the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), believes that the monolithic regime in the neighboring country is making it complicated to deal with.

“What has stalled Turkey so far is the pledge of those who are in favor of Turkey helping in the process. The radical wings of the regime are deterred by Turkey’s suggestions. And unfortunately, I believe, Davuto?lu will find the radicals even stronger when he goes to Syria this Tuesday. After the visit, relations between the countries might cool even further,” Uluta? told Today’s Zaman.

“The reason why Turkey has toughened its stance is clear: Turkey believes Syria has come to a point that cannot be cured by reforms. The message will possibly be ‘Do not rely on us when you do as you please, we are about to take steps that will hurt you, unless you immediately stop the violence.’ Syria needs to speak with harsh rhetoric to uphold its reputation with Assad sympathizers and the general public. I do not think Turkey is at the stage to militarily intervene in Syria, although many are trying to push Turkey towards this. Turkey would rather use its soft power on Syria, as Syria depends on Turkish electricity for power. Turkey’s support in future decisions to be passed in the UN Security Council against Syria is also one big loss for Syria,” he said.

The first senior diplomat told Today’s Zaman that Turkey is principally against any external intervention in the region, when asked about the prospects of a military intervention into Syria.


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