US: Syria's leadership showing fissures

The US has announced new sanctions on Syria in hopes of dividing the business elite from the government. But Turkey has surprised its American allies by patiently pursuing diplomacy instead.

Hakan Goktepe/AP
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, right, meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. in Damascus, Aug. 9. Syria's president held talks with neighboring Turkey's foreign minister Tuesday as the regime faced a chorus of global reproach, with envoys from India, Brazil and South Africa also heading to Damascus to press for an end to the violent crackdown on a five-month-old uprising.

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The US took another decisive step against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Wednesday night with new sanctions and prepared to call for his departure from power as soon as today. But US ally Turkey, which is seen as the main source of international leverage on neighboring Syria, said that its efforts to talk with Damascus since its foreign minister paid a visit on Tuesday are having positive results.

The US imposed sanctions Wednesday night on Syria's largest commercial bank and on its largest telecommunications company in hopes of creating a rift between the government and the country's business elite – a sector that has so far been a strong ally of President Assad in the country's five-month uprising, the Wall Street Journal reports. According to the Associated Press, the State Department is also preparing to demand that he leave office.

Meanwhile, the Turkish ambassador to Syria visited Hama and said that the Army had started withdrawing from the city, a focal point of the protests. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Ankara on Wednesday that he hoped the Army withdrawal meant that Syria would now move forward with reforms – a surprise to the Obama administration, which thought Turkey was turning up the pressure on Syria, the Wall Street Journal reports.

US officials were caught off guard by the Turkish comments, saying they believed Ankara would continue to pursue a hard line, according to officials briefed on the diplomacy. The Obama administration is concerned that Syria could use Turkey's position as political cover to finish off the crackdown in Hama and then claim it is ready to move forward with political reforms.

“We’re not on the same page,” an American official said of Turkey and the US, according to The New York Times, which described Turkey as the "wild card."

A Hurriyet Daily News columnist writes that Assad's weakness is what has maintained Turkey's support – he poses no challenge to Prime Minister Erdogan or Turkey. They're also afraid of who might take his place if he is forced out.

That is the reason why Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan reacted in anger to the Turkish main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu when the latter asked, “What are you going to do when your patience is exhausted? Are you going to go for a military intervention?” Everybody concerned knows there are no conditions for military intervention in Syria; like Libya or Iraq. And Assad knows that one of his main powers keeping him in his chair is his weakness.

Syrian activists are concerned that the elevated level of brutality since the beginning of Ramadantroops invaded yet another town today, this time near the Turkish border – will prompt the protesters to abandon their vow of nonviolence. In the east, extensive tribal networks are well-armed and have support from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq, the New York Times reports.

Syria's leadership, which has presented a united front throughout the uprising, is beginning to show fault lines – support from the business elite is declining, former government supporters are putting distance between themselves and Assad, and signs of disagreement are surfacing among officials, the Times said.

In Damascus this week, 41 former Baathists and government officials took a step that would have been unthinkable for party stalwarts not long ago: They announced an initiative for a political transition. Led by Mohammed Salman, a former information minister with deep connections to the leadership closest to Mr. Assad, the group urged an end to the crackdown, the deployment of the military, and the relentless arrest campaign.

Otherwise, the group warned, the country was headed for “catastrophic results.”

Defection looks most likely among the businessmen, who have reached out to the opposition and tried to keep channels of communication open as they hedge their bets, the Times reports. “They’re starting to turn to us, to the United States, and say, ‘What can we do? How can we help?’ ” a US official told the Times. “The domino effect is going to go even faster for the Sunni business elite, and that’s when you’ll see Damascus go up in flames.

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