Turkish threat to Syria changes the dynamics

Article  •  Publié sur Souria Houria le 20 juillet 2011

Tension between Turkey and Syria over the current bloodletting in Syria has reached the point where Turkish authorities could intervene militarily in Syria in some fashion.

There is growing concern Ankara is so appalled by the widespread killing of the Syrian civilian population by Syrian security forces and military, compounded by more than 12,000 Syrians fleeing into Turkey, that it might actually intervene if the situation deteriorates much further.

While many might find such a drastic move by the government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan somewhat improbable, others believe Ankara could intervene out of disgust with the wholesale massacres perpetrated by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his brother, Maher. Erdogan denounced the killings as « savagery ».

Although such an intervention would contradict Turkey’s stated foreign policy objective of having close and trouble-free relations with all its neighbours, particularly Iran and Syria, the instability in nextdoor Syria, plus the heavy cost of coping with Syrian refugees has, in the view of some observers, made some kind of Turkish pressure on Bashar inevitable, possibly including establishing a buffer zone for refugees on Syrian territory protected by Turkish troops.

troops. A top Turkish general had already tacitly raised the possibility of intervention.

This would not be the first time Turkey had threatened to intervene militarily in Syria. In 1998 Ankara became so infuriated by attacks into Turkey by the Syrian-based Kurdish PKK guerrillas – tolerated by Damascus – that it threatened to invade Syria if the PKK were not quickly expelled.

Aware Turkey is not known for making idle threats, and has one of the best trained and equipped military forces in the world, the Syrian regime capitulated, kicking the PKK out.

But while Turkey’s threat achieved the expulsion of the PKK, during this current crisis it’s uncertain what Bashar al-Assad would do to avoid confrontation with Turkey because he and his family are literally in a showdown with the majority of Syrians trying to overthrow his regime.

The fact he is quite prepared to have the security forces and his brother’s elite military units run amok in city after city, killing residents indiscriminately, reportedly destroying homes and farms, makes it clear he is completely indifferent to how other governments react to his brutal repression of his countrymen.

An American expert, Andrew Taber, told the U.S. Congress that refugees he interviewed in Lebanon reported the Syrian regime had also unleashed thugs known as the shabbiha (ghosts) on local communities, the shabbiha (identified by their shaved heads) torturing suspected anti-regime individuals and killing others. They allegedly report directly to the Assad clan.

Interestingly, when he first assumed office following the death in 2000 of his father, Hafez al-Assad, there were expectations that because of his medical training in Britain, Bashar would lessen the repressive measures imposed on Syria’s population by the Alawite minority elite. (The Alawite are an offshoot of the Shiite Muslim faith, approximately 10 per cent of Syria’s 20 million population. They’ve dominated the Sunni majority since 1970.)

Despite some initial statements by Bashar al-Assad that he looked favourably on changes within the Syrian system, it became apparent the ruling elite was not prepared to open the door to opposing groups who could endanger their own power.

And, like his father, who carried out a massacre of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood stronghold of Hama in 1982, purportedly slaughtering 10,000 to 30,000 inhabitants, his son is unleashing the same kind of violence and bloodshed three decades later.

But notwithstanding the present bloodletting of the civilian populace, and more than 1,500 killed so far, the regime’s continued grip on power is being seriously undermined.

Because of Syria’s pivotal role in Middle East developments other governments, including Washington and European Union states, initially were reluctant to denounce Bashar al-Assad’s bloody crackdown. Some feared his overthrow could work to the advantage of the Muslim Brotherhood or radical Islamists.

Nevertheless, as news of what was happening in Syria seeped out, despite a total ban on foreign media in Syria, and Syrian refugees arriving in Turkey corroborated reports of mass killings, other governments, especially western ones, could no longer ignore the situation.

The current crisis is particularly pertinent for Turkey. Its own refugee concerns are not helped by the knowledge that there does not appear to be any opposition leaders or groups in Syria with the ability to unite the entire population once the regime of Bashar al-Assad were no longer in power.

What the Erdogan government intends to do about the worsening situation next door could have extremely important ramifications for not just the region but also for Turkey’s relations with such countries as Iran (pro-Syria), Israel (anti-Syria), as well as the Obama administration and European Union.

It’s feared that if the mass killings continue it could transform the present uprising into a full-scale sectarian bloodbath, especially during the sensitive period of Ramadan which begins on August 1.

Thus, what happens next in Syria could have repercussions extending far beyond that repressive regime, especially if the al-Assad elite were replaced by conflicting groups – including radical Islamists – vying for their own power.

Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator. He served in Turkey and writes regularly on Middle East issues.

Date : 20/07/2011

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