If US wants to act in Syria, Turkey could be crucial ally

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to meet with Turkey's foreign minister Monday to discuss the possibility of a 'coalition of the willing' to help civilians in Syria.

Umit Bektas/REUTERS
Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu gives an interview in Ankara Wednesday. Davutoglu said that the international community must send a strong message of support to the Syrian people and send aid to residents of the Syrian city of Homs.

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with the Turkish foreign minister in Washington Monday, topic No. 1 is expected to be their efforts to create a kind of “coalition of the willing” for Syria – nations that will support Syria’s civilian population while pressuring the Assad regime to cease attacks on opposition.

Going forward, the No. 1 objective for the Obama administration will be finding a way to support Syria’s pro-democracy opposition forces without feeding a conflict that could spill across the Middle East

In Turkey, the United States finds a useful ally. It was an Assad ally until last summer but has emerged in recent weeks as perhaps the regime’s most dogged foreign opponent. Before departing Ankara Wednesday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey is working to form “as soon as possible” a group to coordinate action between Syria’s pro-democracy opposition groups and interested regional and world powers.

Speaking on Turkish television, the foreign minister said such a broad-based international group is urgently needed to prevent the Syrian crisis from sinking the region into “a phase of instability.” 

Last year, Turkey was instrumental in creation of the Libya Contact Group, the group of countries that helped coordinate international humanitarian assistance to the civilian population under attack by the forces of former leader Muammar Qaddafi. The group also provided a platform of support for Libya’s coalescing opposition forces.

Two of the ideas gaining attention in international humanitarian circles, which the group might consider: establishing “safe havens” for beleaguered civilian populations, akin to those NATO enforced in Bosnia in the early 1990s; creating a “buffer zone” inside Syria along the Turkish border for civilians.

The US has so far taken a cautious approach to such proposals, with administration officials insisting the focus remains on supporting the Syrian people without fanning the conflict’s flames.

For example, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland dismissed a proposal by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut for the US to consider arming Syria rebels. 

“As the president himself made absolutely clear, and as the secretary has continued to say, we don’t think more arms into Syria is the answer," she said. "We think the answer is to get to a national democratic dialogue, for the violence to stop, for the regime’s tanks to come out of the cities, and then for monitors to be able to go back in.”

The continuing attacks on Syrian civilians, Senator McCain says, make some US action a matter of urgency. But he told CBS News Thursday that any arming of Syria's rebels would preferably be done by countries other than America, while US action might include logistical steps such as helping to establish safe passageways for refugees to reach neighboring countries.

The Arab League had an observer mission in Syria in January until it was pulled out. The league concluded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was making the mission’s work impossible.

Mr. Davutoglu will also meet with members of Congress while in Washington.

Some regional experts have speculated that the US could look the other way as countries like Saudi Arabia or Qatar armed Syria’s rebels – especially if Assad's assault on Homs and other restive cities continues.

But the US is also mindful of the risks that could come from an escalation of Syria’s conflict, those experts add. Not only could the conflict transform into something increasingly resembling a sectarian struggle, but closer US association with some of the region’s most nondemocratic regimes could alienate the Arab population.

The White House said Wednesday that the first and most urgent aim of any international action would be to stop the Syrian government's "heinous" assault on its own people.

 "In the coming days we will continue our very active discussions ... to crystallize the international community's next steps in that effort to halt the slaughter of the Syrian people," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters. He said any discussions were likely to include the opposition Syrian National Council, some of whose leaders have taken refuge in Turkey.

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