What to do about Syria? Turkey wavers

March 21, 2012 - 7:26 AM
APTOPIX Mideast Syria

This image made from amateur video and released by the Syria media center Tuesday, March 20, 2012, purports to black smoking rising from buildings in Homs, Syria. An international human rights group Tuesday accused some in Syria's armed opposition of carrying out serious abuses, including the kidnapping and torture of security forces, in a sign of the growing complexity of the year-old uprising against President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Syria Media Center via AP video) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CANNOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE CONTENT, DATE, LOCATION OR AUTHENTICITY OF THIS MATERIAL. TV OUT

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey stands at the forefront of calls for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but there are an awful lot of red lines that it won't cross to realize that goal.

Like its Western allies, Turkey says it won't arm outgunned Syrian rebels, and has no plans to set up a buffer zone in neighboring Syria where civilians and army defectors can shelter and regroup.

The result? A stalemate in which diplomacy and ritual condemnations pale alongside the uninterrupted killing, and fears of wider, regional chaos preclude bolder action on the ground.

Sometimes, it seems that the only actor with a clear aim, and an idea of how to get there, is a Syrian regime intent on survival through the suppression of all dissent.

That leaves countries like Turkey, which staked credibility on a misguided belief that it could persuade Assad to reform, casting around for ways to pressure the regime even though nobody knows what might replace it if it ever falls.

A so-called "Friends of Syria" meeting of nations that seek Assad's downfall, planned for April 1 in Istanbul, runs the risk of yielding just another bout of handwringing over the government crackdown in Syria. The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have been killed in the yearlong uprising, but international horror over the shelling of the city of Homs has already started to fade.

Analysts suggested Assad, though weakened, still holds the initiative, partly because Russia and China have shielded Syria from U.N. action. It is a protracted script, unlike the ones that swiftly ousted Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and led to the death of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

"Bashar Assad is acting with impunity because he knows that what has happened to Gadhafi is not likely to happen to him," said Prof. Mustafa Kibaroglu, chair of the international relations department at Okan University in Istanbul.

Of the Istanbul meeting, he said: "This is not going to be the last, possibly, and there will be soulsearching, maybe with the addition of new countries."

A similar conference in February in Tunisia ended with nothing other than the threat of increasing isolation and sanctions to compel compliance from Assad, a strategy that has so far failed.

Turkey, NATO's biggest Muslim member, emerged as a regional power in the past decade, backed by a growing economy, emerging democratic credentials and historical and cultural links to neighbors. It pursued pragmatic links with authoritarian leaders, but shifted to a pro-democracy position as uprisings swept the Middle East and North Africa.

The crackdown in Syria is acutely uncomfortable for Turkey, which does not want to be seen as a bystander to atrocities on its doorstep. At the same time, it is wary of scenarios such as a "buffer zone" inside Syria that could plunge its troops into battles with Syrian forces, drag in other countries and undo its image as a regional mediator.

Turkey hasn't ruled out a buffer zone, but it does not intend to embark alone on such a risky venture. Turkey is intent on seeking international consensus on Syria, but that consensus simply does not exist.

"We are working to solve this problem through an intense diplomatic traffic and by working on every possibility," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday at a joint news conference with his visiting Moroccan counterpart.

"God willing, there won't be any further pain and grave incidents. But Turkey is determined to consider every kind of measure in connection with its border security, and so that our Syrian brothers do not go through any further pain," Davutoglu said.

He cited an array of meetings during which Syria will be discussed, including the Istanbul meeting and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's trip to Iran later this month. Iran is a staunch ally of Syria, and its sharp divergence with Turkey over the conflict in Syria has highlighted the potential for rivalry between the regional powers.

Turkey is also deeply reluctant to try to tip the military balance with arms supplies to rebels, a step that could ignite a broader, sectarian-based conflict in an unstable region, and even trigger tit-for-tat Syrian support for Turkey's Kurdish rebels.

Many Mideast actors, and outside powers such as Europe and the United States, worry that the Syrian opposition is not a cohesive force, and fear a full-blown disintegration in the country. Even the status quo between old enemies Israel and Syria is a reasonably stable arrangement that has lasted decades.

Turkey, which shares a 566-mile (911-kilometer) frontier with Syria, nearly went to war with its neighbor over Syrian support for Turkish Kurd rebels in the 1990s. The relationship improved dramatically over the past decade.

Unlike many countries, Turkey has not recalled its ambassador, signaling its willingness to retain a basic line of communication to the government there.

"Turkey wants the Syrian regime, which oppresses its own people and goes after its people with tanks and artillery, to go," said Huseyin Celik, spokesman for Turkey's ruling party. "At the moment, there is no decision on forming a buffer zone. As to the subject of the embassy, there is no question officially, diplomatically for now, for the ambassador to be withdrawn."

Kamer Kasim, an analyst at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization, said the meeting in Istanbul was unlikely to produce "something new" in the near term, if Syria maintains its hardline stance as expected. The weight of diplomatic pressure thus far, he said, was simply not enough to push Assad onto the defensive.

"It seems to me that these actions are not enough to get rid of the Syrian regime," Kasim said. "The Syrian regime does not intend to compromise in any way."

Another commentator, Semih Idiz, wrote in Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News that Turkey had painted itself into a corner on Syria because it wrongly anticipated that the uprising would not last so long and Assad would be toppled sooner.

"The bottom line is that al-Assad — albeit in the most appallingly inhuman way — has thus far outfoxed Erdogan and Davutoglu, and it seems he will be around for much longer than Ankara expected or is prepared for," Idiz wrote.