New phase in the Syrian crisis

By: Bulent Kenes

The Syrian crisis has entered a new phase with the ending on Tuesday of the deadline given by United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan for the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Syrian opposition to lay down their arms and declare a cease-fire.

Although Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem had told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that they would put down their weapons and start to withdraw tanks from cities, the fact that the Assad forces are continuing their violent massacres up until the last moment makes it hard for the international community to believe what Moallem said. In the past, US satellites showed how the Damascus administration had been lying in similar cases. Moreover, even if the Assad regime decided to comply with the Annan plan merely for tactical reasons, it seems impossible to convince the Syrian opposition to agree to a truce, particularly given the fact that conditions for voicing democratic demands have deteriorated significantly when compared to 13 months ago, when the incidents first started, and that thousands of people have died in the massacres.

As the crisis created by the Assad regime, which has lost its credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of not only Turkey but also the international community, enters a new phase, Assad has so far managed to skillfully implement the tactic of gaining time by stalling the international community — a tactic the Syrian administration’s mentor Iran is adept at employing. There are numerous reasons why Assad will choose to continue with this tactic. Indeed, there were still reports of clashes across Syria even as Syrian Foreign Minister Moallem declared their compliance with the Annan plan. Possibly, the Assad regime will pretend to comply with the Annan plan to gain time, during which it will continue its massacres to suppress its opponents. When it will again have its back against the wall, Russia will step in to commence another initiative. In this way, international pressure on the Assad regime will be deflected.  Having used Turkey’s, the Arab League’s and finally UN envoy Annan’s initiatives solely to buy itself time, the Assad regime will find new opportunities to maintain its slaughter, thanks to potential future initiatives by Russia, Iran or China.

On the other hand, a new phase that Turkey must take very seriously started when Assad forces opened fire across the border between Syria and Turkey, killing three Syrians who were fleeing to Turkey and wounding 23 people, including two Turkish citizens. In the final analysis, this represents a direct military attack by a neighbor on Turkish territory. As a matter of fact, there have always been concerns about this possibility. Experts had been talking about the risk of Turkey being pulled into a quagmire, clashing with Syria because it opened its borders to Syrian refugees fleeing from the massacres. For the last two days, we have witnessed a situation where the possibility is increasing that this risk will materialize. Yes, but what should Turkey do now?

First of all, Turkey should manage to maintain its self-possession, despite such provocative developments. As noted in a report titled “Crisis Right Next Door: International Approaches and Recommendations for Turkey” by the Ankara-based think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK): “Great divisions, disruptions and fluctuations that may occur in the region are against Turkey’s interests. If a military intervention decision is to be taken, Turkey should try to make sure that such a decision secures the broadest consensus possible. And Turkey must refrain from leading a military intervention.”

As Iran, China and Russia continue to lend full support militarily and politically to Syria with the intention of sustaining the Assad regime against the will of the international community, the developments in Syria are making a military intervention the sole option, however unfavorable it is. As noted in the report, the Assad regime’s efforts to intimidate its opponents through daily massacres force the Syrian opposition to seek to obtain weapons. It seems that this may push many groups, including those who oppose the “militarization” of the existing movement, to join the armed struggle against the Assad regime.

The better option is to create safe no-fly zones, whose international legitimacy may be backed by the UN, NATO and the Friends of Syrian group. If the UN is to be bypassed due to Russia’s resistance, this option will certainly necessitate the participation of a global power like the US and broad regional and global support as was the case with Kosovo. As noted by the report, if a buffer zone is to be created, this, too, must be done by securing broad international support. In this sense, bringing the matter back to the UN’s agenda may prove beneficial. Although the conditions that would justify Turkey’s establishment on its own of a buffer zone in Syrian territories — an effort which Damascus may perceive as a direct declaration of war — are on the rise, this has serious risks. Likewise, if a no-fly zone is to be put in place, it should be noted that this would necessitate the neutralizing of Syrian air defense systems. In such a case, Syria may choose to fire some of its missiles at Turkey. Accordingly, Turkey must cooperate with its allies to make the necessary preparations, including the installation of a missile defense system.

It is in Turkey’s interest to ensure that Syrian unity and integrity is preserved. And its policies should seek to maintain the country’s territorial integrity in the post-Assad era. As noted in USAK’s report, there is the risk of the partitioning of Syria, with the support of some foreign powers that would seek to benefit from such a division, into three regions: a Kurdish region in the north, a Nusayri region on the Mediterranean coast and a Sunni region in the center that could be easily controlled. At least, Turkey should act with the awareness of such a risk. Although Syria, a country that had been divided into five provinces based on its sectarian structure between 1920 and 1921, does not currently run the risk of such a division, there is still a potential risk of its being dragged into ethnic, sectarian and religious conflicts. USAK’s report warns that we should understand, when laying out a strategy to approach Syria, that there is the risk of a potentially long-lasting civil war or an armed clash that could spread to the whole region.

In sum, Syria has entered a new phase teeming with great uncertainties and ambiguities. This multivariate dangerous situation, it seems, will deal the heaviest blow to Turkey’s image as a soft power. I hope none of the terrifying developments that I partially discussed above will really take place.

Source: Today’s Zaman

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