Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Can Turkey have it all when it comes to Syria

Some US commentators insist that the US should not intervene in Syria because the circumstances are still not right. Citing a possibility to cause civilian causalities or danger of appearing trigger-happy in the case of imposing a “No Fly Zone,” those commentators argue that the US should stay away from direct confrontation.

A country that has about 20 million population now sees 150 to 200 deaths per day, many of whom are civilians, nulls the first reasoning above. As the Syrian regime stepped up using its air power, which I witnessed first hand in the Selahaddine neighborhood in Aleppo and Jabal Zawiya of Idlib, stopping this air madness ought to precede any other worries overwhelmingly.

The US also cannot be labeled as “trigger happy” in the case of an intervention since it has been 18 months that the widely recorded atrocities continue. If the case is of an intervention not deemed necessary after more than killing of 25 thousands of Syrians along with millions of displaced Syrians inside the country as well as hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries, when can be the turning point that would make the US to say ‘enough is enough.’?
Whether in Idlib’s northern town Binnish of 40 thousand or in al Bab, the northeastern fringe of Aleppo, where the rebels claim to control large swaths of lands, my conversations with the locals always circled around to the same demand: ‘we need a No Fly Zone, not more bread, foreign soldiers or pity.’

During my earlier visit to Damascus in January 2012 around the suburbs of Damascus, and this time to Aleppo and Idlib, I heard one another argument from pro-revolution Syrians that should worry the West with the future of Syria. In all these three different provinces, scores of Syrians agreed on one conclusion that ‘the West wants to destroy Syria by giving barely a life support to the rebels but not a winning edge over the regime forces.”

Indeed the US still wants to stay away from the Syrian predicament, and it can be confidently argued that none of the major reasons for this policy decision are related to whether the conditions on the ground are ripe for the US intervention. It seems that the US has two major concerns for its policy of ''inaction'' when it comes to Syria:

• The experiences from Afghanistan and Iraq are overwhelming. The Obama administration is afraid that in case of an indirect intervention by providing the heavy weapons to the Syrian armed oppositions, it will get caught by another trap in the future by facing those same weapons as a threat to its own interests, or Israel’s, just like the Taliban became a menace after the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. This shows how little faith the US administration has in the FSA brigades in essence.

• The second biggest worry that prevents US to lend vital support for an intervention to hasten dramatically fall of the Assad clan is that the potential chaos that might ensue across Syria just like in Iraq after the 2003 invasion of the US forces. That is probably why, the US envoy to Syria, Robert Ford spent a considerable time during his speech on Sunday while addressing the hundreds of members of the Syrian-American expatriate organizations in Washington to remind the chaos in Iraq and emphasized an urgent need for Syrian oppositions to plan for the day after.

The Continuing fight in Syria also keep “bleeding” Iran and weakening its economic and military sources that are flowing into Syria to stabilize there. Important to remember, it is not only Syria, but also Iran under the heavy sanctions by the international community.

There is also a message to Ankara’s regional leadership aspirations by the US that it can’t have it all. Turkey is now in bad terms with almost all neighboring states from Iran to Iraq and Israel. For example, the US, having a great difficulty to convince Turkey in the past to join the coalition against Iran, now sees that the Syrian crisis drives a wedge between the two regional rivals, something that US long wanted to accomplish.

This predicament urges Turkey to accept the Israeli apology and compensation for the loss of lives during the botched Mavi Marmara flotilla operation, something that the Israeli leadership showed willingness to do already. It appears that the conservative administration in Ankara needs Israel’s friendship to replace for its retrograde relations with Iran and Iraq, and a better relations that the US administration officials have been encouraging from the top levels likely will help Ankara to receive a stronger US support regarding its moves in Syria as well as its positioning for other regional developments that seem to be escalating in many shapes and ways. As a downside, if Turkey prefers mending the ties with Israel, it will face to lose some of its popularity among the Arab public as well as to receive increased criticism from the ‘resistance bloc.’

As the stalemate in the regional landscape continues, the international community witnesses the ever rising civilian deaths in Syria and as well as its collapsing economy, infrastructure and military inventory. This constant feel of abandonment and betrayal among Syrians by seeing the regime airforce shelling them day in and out, as I gathered from my own conversations on the ground, make them to accumulate animosity towards the West, slowly but surely.

Meanwhile, Turkey is one of the countries that is set to lose big inside and out as a result of lingering fight in Syria. PKK, which is designed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, US and the EU, recently, increased its attacks in the Southeast to claim control over some of those areas. This summer happened to be one of the bloodiest summers since the early 1990s, as it appeared that PKK is emboldened by the Kurdish rising in Syria, in addition to the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey's pro-active support for the mainly Sunni Syria's rebellion against al-Assad regime also has drawn attention to another potential risk inside the county which is a spill over effect of the sectarian Sunni-versus-Alawite conflict in Syria. Alevis -- an offhoot of Iran's Shia -- in Turkey which is estimated about 15 millions, and Alawites approximately 1 million which has very close ties with the Alawites in Syria, both of them with a majority, tend to oppose AKP's Syria policy as they easily identify themselves with the minorities in Syria. This also drives the division between the Sunnis and Alevis in Turkey deeper.

These two significant negative effects of the Syrian crisis also push the Ankara administration to pursue the Obama administration move rapidly and boldly to dethrone Bashar al-Assad. Thus, Turkey's recent aggressive rhetoric regarding Syria does not only stem out of about 80 thousand refugees (its numbers are accelerating at a rapid rate), but also from the feel of the urgency to confront some of these internal drawbacks of the Syrian crisis at home.

According to a recent WSJ report, Turkey has spent about $300 million on the housing and feeding the Syrian refugees and Turkish border towns, such as Antakya and Kilis, that relied on trade with Syria have seen economic activity shrivel and businessmen’s complaints grew louder which I had heard some of it during my couple of days stay in August from the locals in these two cities. All of these negative effects have created a public skepticism over AKP’s Syria policy, which was not the case until a month or two ago.

That is why, it is time for the Turkish leadership to begin putting together its coalition blocks to allure the help of the US to impose a NFZ in Syria as Washington continues to be aloof. And we do not have any hints, besides soothsayers that the Syria calculations of another Obama administration might change just because the elections passed. On the contrary, the US envoy to Ankara, Francis Ricciardione told a few weeks ago that the US has no plans to intervene after the elections either. And finally, we now watch the Obama election campaign, leading with Mr. Joe Biden, the US Vice President, accuse the Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney for wanting to go to war with Iran and Syria, even though we have yet to see or hear any strong evidence that the Romney campaign indeed advocating for such a war with Syria.

If Turkey wants to be a regional leader, then it can actually lead the way by setting its priorities straight first.