Spiraling Syria violence pulls friends apart

Turkey-Syria ties, once crowned by a close friendship between the two countries’ leaders and joint ministerial meetings, have hit rock bottom as spiraling violence engulfs Syria and a Syrian shelling killed five Turks earlier this month.

When Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi torched himself Dec. 17, 2010, his death triggered a wave of protests and sent shockwaves across the Arab world, ultimately haunting Syria’s Baath regime.

The fate of Ankara-Damascus ties was sealed after Bouazizi’s death, which was followed by a self-immolation by a Syrian citizen, Hasan Ali Akleh, on Jan. 26, 2011, who was protesting the regime.

Five days after Akleh’s death, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told The Wall Street Journal that the protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen were ushering in a “new era” in the Middle East, and that Arab rulers would need to do more to accommodate their people’s rising political and economic aspirations. However, he hinted that the Arab Spring would have no effect on Syria at all.

Syrian President al-Assad (2nd L) and his spouse Asma (2nd R) visit Prime Minister Erdoğan (L) and his spouse in a Damascus hotel in this 2009 photo.

Feb. 6 Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on Syrian authorities to make reforms at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Friendship Dam on the Asi (Orontes) River on the border between Turkey and Syria.

A supporter of democratic reforms across the Arabian Peninsula, Turkey has long encouraged the Syrian authorities to undertake a swift reform program that addresses the needs and demands of the Syrian citizens.

“There is nothing to worry about, it’s just media propaganda. The situation in Syria is stable, everything is usual, and life is very normal,” Syrian Presidential Affairs Minister Mansour Azzam wrote in an email to Lucy Williamson, a representative of an interior architecture company who had an appointment with Asma al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s wife.

The unrest has started to spread across the country. On Feb. 17 some 1,500 Syrians flocked to the streets to protest the beating of a shopkeeper by police. In March a group of youths was arrested in the southern city of Deraa for allegedly writing, “The people want to overthrow the regime.” In Damascus police stepped in to block a protest by some 50 people seeking more freedom and a political pardon.

At the end of March, al-Assad dissolved his government, a move seen as a counter to the increasing number of protests. A week later the government granted citizenship to tens of thousands of Kurds.

Protests spilled into the city of Aleppo, the country’s commercial hub. In another step to defuse the protests that had gripped the country for over a month, the new government ended Syria’s state of emergency, which had been in effect for nearly 50 years.

On April 22 thousands took to the streets for protests, and at least 88 people were killed across the country. Ankara expressed sorrow over the incidents.

In May the efforts to crush the protests became more violent, and the number of deaths reached over 1,000 at the end of the month.

On June 10 some 120 Syrian soldiers were killed in the town of Jisr al-Shughour of Idlib, which is close to the Turkish border. Government forces started a massive raid on the town and at least 5,000 people fled their homes across the border into Turkey. Erdoğan condemned the incident.

The Arab League condemned Syria’s crackdown and repression for the first time on June 14. Two days later U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon condemned the violence, another sign that the uprising was attracting international outcry.

On June 20 a Turkish delegation sent to Damascus demanded the removal of Maher al-Assad, a top military commander and brother of the Syrian president. The number of protesters grew day by day.
On July 11 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the regime’s attacks, stating that al-Assad had “lost legitimacy.”

At the end of July, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing its concerns over the course of incidents and advised the Syrian government to stop the violence. The statement coincided with the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is composed of soldiers who have defected.

On July 29 the FSA’s formation was announced in a video released on the Internet by a uniformed group of deserters from the Syrian military, who called upon members of the Syrian army to defect and join them

On Aug. 3 the United Nations Security Council condemned the human rights violations against the Syrian protesters for the first time. The Syrian army entered the cities of Homs and Deir ez-Zor.

On Aug. 6 Turkey said it would send Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to Damascus to present the Turkish government’s demands for an end to the crackdown. Davutoğlu’s six-hour meeting, in which the Syrian president promised to make reforms, on Aug. 9 was the last face-to-face meeting between Ankara and Damascus.

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