Turkey risks Syria's friendship in last-ditch effort to end violence

Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu is in Damascus today to warn Syria's President Assad against continuing his crackdown on the country's uprising.

Hakan Goktepe/Turkish Foreign Ministry/Reuters
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (l) meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in Damascus August 9. Davutoğlu arrived in Syria on Tuesday to give Assad a robust message about the need to halt a military assault on protesters.

Turkey is today sharply ratcheting up the pressure on Syria, warning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he could risk "Saddam-like" isolation if he does not halt his brutal crackdown on Syrian protesters.

As Syria's friend, neighbor, and largest trading partner, Turkey considers the issue to be primarily of domestic concern. But its outspoken demands for Syria could precipitate wider international action.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is personally conveying the message to President Assad in Damascus, where representatives of India, South Africa, and Brazil were also arriving today to push for an end to violence. Assad already faces condemnation from the UN Security Council, Saudi Arabia, the Arab League, and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain have withdrawn their ambassadors to Damascus.

However, Assad's regime is seemingly unperturbed by its growing isolation. An editorial published Tuesday in the ruling Baath Party's newspaper said the regime is hopeful that "Turkey and the Gulf Arab nations will 'quickly correct their stands'," the Associated Press reports.

The editorial was a reference to harsh criticism by Turkey's Prime Minister Erdoğan over the weekend, Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News reported in an article published Sunday.

The outcome of Davutoğlu’s meeting with al-Assad will determine the course of Turkish policy vis-a-vis Syria, Turkish officials said, signaling that Ankara has come close to abandoning the Syrian president and considering international measures that may lead to his “Saddam-like” isolation.

“The process from now on will take shape according to the response [al-Assad] will give and the practices on the ground,” Erdoğan said Saturday. “Our patience is running thin… We do not see the Syria issue as an external one. It is an internal issue for us. We share a border of 850 kilometers, we have kinship, historical and cultural ties and … we cannot just watch what is happening there.”

At least 2,000 Syrians are estimated to have been killed in the uprising so far, including almost 400 members of the security forces. Some 300 Syrians have been killed in the past week alone – a fact that is revolting to many Muslims, since the deaths came during the first week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Turkish foreign minister's trip today follows a Turkish security summit chaired yesterday by Erdogan to discuss Turkey's options vis-á-vis Syria. In addition, US Mideast envoy Fred Hof visited the Turkish capital before Davutoğlu's trip so that the US and Turkey could coordinate their responses to Syria. The US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has raised the ire of the Assad regime by traveling to cities at the heart of the uprising. The regime has since restricted him to Damascus.

The Turkish government believes that the international community won't take further action against Assad's regime unless Turkey opts to as well. While Mr. Davutoğlu was expected to warn Assad that he could face isolation similar to that of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, Turkey and others have made clear that a military operation similar to that in Libya is unlikely.

“The situation here is not like the one in Libya. No one can do anything on Syria without Turkey… I don’t think that military action against Syria is likely but the process may lead to an embargo, isolation and a Saddam [Hussein]-like situation” for Assad, an unnamed foreign ministry official told Hurriyet on Sunday.

Turkey has a number of requests for Syria. The first priority is an immediate halt to military operations against the protesters. Mr. Davutoğlu will also request a set date for free and fair elections and the release of all political prisoners.

What will happen if Syria rebuffs Turkey's requests today is unclear, but Turkey could be faced with the choice of backpedaling in its demands on Syria or forsaking an alliance that Erdogan has worked hard to nurture, Reuters reports.

"Turkey will have to seriously consider its ties with Syria," [said Bahadir Dincer, Middle East expert at the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara]. "It has been a white page for a decade now, the recent tension turned it grey, and we'll see tomorrow if the relations are entering a red-page era."

Having almost gone to war in the late 1990s over Syria harboring Kurdish militants, the friendship became a virtual poster-child for Erdogan's foreign policy of "zero problems with neighbors."

Erdogan has holidayed with Assad, their cabinets have held joint meetings, Turkey has become Syria's biggest trading partner, the neighbors have visa-free travel between them, and Turkey tried to broker a peace deal between Syria and Israel.

Many analysts say that Syria has given no indication that it plans to make any concessions in the meeting with Davutoğlu today. Reuters reports that Syrian troops today stormed the town of Binnish, less than 20 miles from the Turkish border, and continued their assault on Deir al-Zour in the east.

One option being considered is the establishment of a buffer zone inside Syria. If violence against towns near the Turkish border continues, that option becomes more likely, a columnist writes in Hurriyet.

If unrest moves into Aleppo, a Syrian city with 3 million inhabitants located only 26 miles from the Turkish border, there could be a massive wave of refugees into Turkey. And do not forget the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. This group, which has launched destructive terrorist attacks in Turkey, is well organized in the ethnically Kurdish areas of northern Syria along the Turkish border, including Azez. The Syrian membership of the PKK also represents the group’s hard-line, violence-is-the-best-policy branch. A flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey would mean at least a few undetected hard-line PKK members slipping across the border, which is something that Ankara does not want. Ankara’s first reaction to the spiraling violence in Syria will be to contain the crisis in Syria.

This would also help Turkey maintain the growing soft power it has painstakingly built in the Arab world since the AKP rose to power in 2002. So, expect Turkey to avoid direct military intervention to the extent possible. Instead, expect Ankara be serious about its proposal to set up a buffer zone inside Syria, in which the Turkish government and military would provide the Syrian citizens with security and relief.

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