Syrian forces target Deir El-Zour (Source B92.net)
By James M. Dorsey
Syrian president Bashar al Assad has succeeded where US and European diplomacy failed: five months into anti-government demonstrations demanding his resignation, Mr. Assad has united the international community in decrying the brutality of his failed effort to crush the protests.
Increasingly cornered, Mr. Assad failed in the past week to read the writing on the wall. His ferocious attack on Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city and a symbol of resistance against his family’s four-decade old iron-fisted rule, prompted the United Nations Security Council to call last Tuesday for a halt to the crackdown for the first time since the protests erupted.
The call in a statement by the Council’s president removed the protective umbrella China and Russia had been holding above Mr. Assad’s head to shield him from effective international criticism. The two powers’ refusal to criticize Mr. Assad and opposition to any formal UN statement on Syria had rendered the international community impotent and given the Syrian president the time and space to violently put an end to the protests.
Russia and China’s endorsement of the Council statement amounts to an acceptance that Mr. Assad’s crackdown has failed and that the ferocity of last week’s attack on Hama made it impossible to allow the president to continue unhindered.
Increasingly cornered, the message appeared to have been lost on Mr. Assad. Days after the assault on Hama, which left an estimated 200 people dead, Syrian tanks pointed their barrels at Deir El-Zour, Syria’s fifth largest city in the country’s oil- and gas-producing east, killing at least 70 people.
By doing so, Mr. Assad ensured that the international community’s remaining stragglers, his Arab brethren, joined the call for a halt to the violence. Both the Arab League and the six-nation oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) demanded that Mr. Assad seek a non-violent solution to the crisis in his country. Saudi Arabia went one step further by following Qatar in withdrawing its ambassador from Damascus, a step that not even the United States and the European, Syria’s two most vocal critics, have taken. The withdrawal is to a significant extent a protest against Syria’s alliance with Iran, whom Saudi Arabia accuses of fomenting the protests in much of the region.
Mr. Assad’s intransigence meanwhile has alienated his only Western ally, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who dispatched his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to Damascus to advise the Syrian leader in no uncertain terms that Turkey could no longer stand by idly and watch the carnage.
Mr. Erdogan’s furor goes beyond anger at Mr. Assad’s rebuttal of his appeals for a political solution to the crisis and fear that a second wave of refugees could join the thousands of Syrians that have already sought refuge in Turkey earlier this summer. It follows a meeting of Turkey’s newly appointed military brass with Mr. Erdogan and his ministers of defense, interior and justice to discuss the threat of Syria’s turmoil reviving Kurdish insurgent activity in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.
Mr. Erdogan’s tough language signals his belief that Turkey may be able and forced to act to increase pressure on Syria in ways that its US and European allies cannot. To be sure, the US and Europe have at least one last one last gasp up their sleeve: the boycott of Syrian oil exports. Nonetheless, British foreign secretary, William Hague admitted last week there was not much more Britain could do, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has in recent days primarily lamented the rising number of dead in Syria.
The stakes for Turkey are high. Amid fears that the turmoil could spill across several of Syria’s borders into Lebanon and Jordan, Turkey is increasingly concerned that it could rekindle its war against Kurdish insurgents in the southeast of the country that over the better part of two decades in the 1980s and 1990s left 40,000 people dead.
Turkey has done little so far to discredit speculation that it might seek to preempt another wave of protests as well as a return of fighters of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) who operate from inside Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, by setting up of some kind of safe haven in northern Syria policed by the Turkish military. Turkey would justify such a military intervention with the argument that it is seeking to protect innocent lives based on the principle of the UN Security Council’s authorization in March of a no-fly zone in Libya.
By allowing speculation about a safe haven to fester, Turkey is warning Syria that unlike Western nations who have ruled out military intervention to halt the bloodshed, its hands are not tied. Mr. Assad has however already signaled that it’s a warning he is unlikely to heed. The Syrian president’s adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, said Mr. Assad will respond to Mr. Davutoglu’s tough message to be delivered during talks in Damascus on Tuesday in equally tough terms. By doing so Mr. Assad is challenging Turkey to put its money where its mouth is.
Perhaps more importantly, Mr. Assad is also saying that he feels that despite the mounting international and domestic pressure he sees no way out of the crisis but to step up the violence and quell the protests at whatever cost. It is a message that firmly draws the battle lines and could force Turkey to act in what it perceives as its self-interest.
That self-interest is compounded by the fact that US troops are leaving predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq.
It is further amplified in a recently leaked report by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) that warns that Syria as well as Iran have stopped cooperating with Turkey in the battle against the Kurdish insurgents.
The MIT report, leaked to Turkish daily Zaman, noted that Iran has refused to share information on its latest bombing campaign that started on July 16 aimed to destroy facilities of the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), the PKK's Iranian wing, in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq. The MIT report estimates that some 3,800 Kurdish fighters, almost half of which were born in Syria, are based in Kandil. The Syrian-born fighters are believed to be the most hardline group within the PKK.
The report also suggested that some of the PKK’s top leaders were operating from Syria in violation of a 12-year old agreement to cooperate in countering the Kurdish rebels. The report notes further that not one of 264 PKK fighters detained by Syria since 2008 has been extradited to Turkey. Syria agreed to cooperation with Turkey in 1999 when it expelled PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan who was subsequently captured by Turkish forces and sentenced by a Turkish court to life in prison in a bid to avert a Turkish military attack.
The reports that Turkey may set up a safe haven inside Syria were given greater currency by the government’s reorganization last month of its battle against the PKK that gave the police and the gendarmerie a great role. The government shifted responsibility for counter-terrorism in southeastern Turkey’s cities from the military to the police and put the gendarmerie in charge of rural areas under the auspices of the interior ministry. The moves effectively freed the armed forces to focus on possible operations inside Syria.
Nonetheless, the setting up of a safe haven in Syria could prove a tricky undertaking that would allow Mr. Assad to cast doubt on the sincerity of Turkey’s support for the anti-government protests and bolster his argument that his troops are battling armed gangs aided by foreign forces. It could potentially pit Turkish forces against Syria’s estimated 400,000 Kurds who have largely supported the protests because they have little to lose in a country that refuses to give them citizenship or furnish them with identity papers.
That public relations advantage however is a drop in the bucket of Mr. Assad’s increasingly untenable position. It will not convince the international community of the rectitude of his position nor will it create opportunities for him to resolve the crisis. Mr. Assad has backed himself into a corner in which he may well feel that his only alternative is to fight to the bitter end.
James M. Dorsey, is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer