Turkey Cools Down Tempers over Syria

As Monday dawned, Turkey kept its fingers crossed in keen anticipation of the nationwide address by President Bashar al-Assad on the situation in Syria.  Ankara sent an open message ahead of Assad’s speech that if he failed to announce reforms even in a third attempt, he would “miss a big chance” to preserve power.

Turkey saw hopeful signs in the “retirement” of Rami Makhlouf, the controversial cousin of the president, soon after Assad’s special envoy Hasan Turkmani returned to Damascus after talks with the Turkish leadership.

The influential editor of Hurriyet newspaper Murat Yetkin quoted Turkish Foreign Ministry officials that Ankara has been giving “strong messages” to Assad and the two-fold message is that: a) There shouldn’t be any use of violence; b) He should forthwith announce concrete reform steps.  Yetkin quoted Turkish officials, “We are not interested in names, but principles.”  In short, Ankara is not pressing for a “regime change”.

The Turkish officials felt exasperated that Assad kept changing his mind.  Yetkin quoted them: “There are groups inside and outside Syria that want to stop him from taking reformist steps, in order to see him put down at the expense of the Syrian people.  Ankara doesn’t want that.  That’s why we don’t want him to miss this chance.”

In the event, Assad met the Turkish leadership more than half way by announcing a road map that was largely specific but left vague in patches.  Assad outlined steps for revising or rewriting the constitution and the formation of a national dialogue committee to draw up new election laws.  He set time limits for reaching reforms: a new parliament will be elected by August and the package of political reforms will be finalized by September.

The dialogue, he said, would “commence immediately”.  The Turkish reaction has been mixed.  President Abdullah Gul said it is “not enough, but yes” — meaning, despite shortfalls it is a step forward.  Ankara seems satisfied that Assad took its suggestions.  Gul said Assad could have said things more openly and still wouldn’t have risked his hold on power.

Gul’s was the voice of reasonableness; it had nothing of the harshness of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tone who recently described the Syrian crackdown as “savagery”.  There has been some cool stocktaking by Ankara.

Only last weekend, Gul’s key advisor Ersat Hurmuzlu told Saudi Arabia’s al-Arabya television that Assad had less than a week to meet the demands of the protesters, failing which “it wouldn’t be possible to offer any cover for the leadership in Syria because there is the danger . . . that we had always been afraid of, and that is foreign intervention.”  By Monday, Hurmuzlu had retracted.  “We are not redesigning others’ houses.  It is Syria’s own problem,” he clarified.

Obviously, the Saudis are muddying the waters for Ankara.  The Saudi media have been highly critical of Assad and openly call for regime change.  The Asharq Alawsat carried a pungent commentary on Monday:

The problem with Syria today is that everybody is looking at what is happening there as if it is the conclusion of [what is happening on] the Arab scene, and that the same pattern exists for each country.  Many believe that the Syrians are “copying” the Tunisians, the Egyptians, and others, and this is simply not true.  The size and depth of the Syrian opposition within the country is greater than everybody thinks.  The demands that are being called for today by the Syrians have been in place ever since 2000. . . .

Therefore what is happening in Syria is not the same as what happened in other parts of the region; it is a genuine movement . . .  Syrians are demonstrating and shouting, “We don’t love you [Assad], we don’t love you, leave us alone and your party too!”

Again, the European voice has been strident, too.  British Foreign Secretary William Hague said:

I hope our Turkish colleagues will bring every possible pressure to bear on the Assad regime with a very clear message that they are losing legitimacy and that Assad should reform or step aside.  And I hope they will be very clear and very bold about that.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe outstripped Hague: “Some believe there’s still time for him [Assad] to change his ways and commit to a [reform] process.  For my part, I doubt it.  I think the point of no return has been reached.”  But Turkey grasps too well the nuances of European diplomacy to know what such gratuitous advice means.

United States President Barack Obama phoned Erdogan on Monday following Assad’s speech.  The White House statement said,

The leaders agreed that the Syrian government must end the use of violence now and promptly enact meaningful reforms that respect the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.

But Erdogan’s office merely said he and Obama agreed to monitor developments in Syria closely.  It claimed that the conversation was wide-ranging and covered the situation in Libya and the imperative need of a Middle East process as well.

Why is Turkey cooling down tempers after having ratcheted up the rhetoric?  A combination of factors is at work.  First, as it happens frequently in Turkey, hot-headed politicians say intemperate things due to domestic compulsions, and before long, the Foreign Ministry steps in for course correction.

Turkey’s able diplomats would have assessed that Assad’s position was not so shaky despite the West’s pressure tactic.  Interestingly, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Monday he would expect Assad’s departure in a time frame of six months.  Turkey would know six months is a long time in politics.  So, it would rather work to see if the reasonable assurances by Assad regarding reforms could be tested on the ground.  Assad carefully chose an ethnic Turkmen as his special envoy to hold talks in Ankara last week, which itself was a highly symbolic gesture to instill confidence.  Ankara took note.

Furthermore, Turkish diplomats would factor in that the Western intervention in Libya is in a bit of a mess.  The initial assumption that Muammar Gaddafi’s regime would pack up has been belied and it didn’t turn out to be a clear-cut fight between authoritarianism and democracy.  It is proving to be a tribal confrontation and a conflict between ethnic groups, and evidently, the Western interventionists overestimated the power of the Libyan opposition.

Turkey understands the importance of avoiding a similar miscalculation over Syria.  If there is anarchy in Syria, it will be almost entirely Turkey that picks up the debris — not Iraq, Jordan, Israel, or Lebanon.  A distinguishing feature of the Turkish state that Kemal Ataturk founded has been to avoid getting entangled in conflicts in the Muslim Middle East.  “Peace at home, peace abroad” — that’s how Turks describe their state dogma.  The Saudis may clap their hands in glee, Europeans may exhort, but the toil will be Turkey’s alone.

Finally, what about international legitimacy?  Russia and China made it clear in their joint statement issued in Moscow last weekend after the visit by President Hu Jintao that they won’t let the West do a “Libya” on them over Syria.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview on Monday that Moscow will use veto if the West presses for a resolution on Syria at the United Nations Security Council.  “What I will not support is a resolution similar to 1973 on Libya, because I am convinced that a good resolution has been turned into a piece of paper to cover a senseless military operation,” Medvedev said.  He pointed out that the use of violence on the part of the Syrian opposition would prompt any government to respond with force, and in any case, Russia finds it unacceptable if attempt is made to interfere in the domestic affairs of another sovereign country under the questionable slogan of “protecting civilians”.

A delegation of the Syrian opposition will visit Moscow on June 27.  The Russian stance is that it should be left to the Syrians to settle their problems and the international community should assist such a process rather than, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it, “Create circumstances for new armed conflicts.”  Ankara knows Moscow’s stance reflects the aspirations of the Arab street.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.  His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, and Turkey.  This article was first published in Asia Times on 22 June 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.  See, also, M K Bhadrakumar, “A Summit in Tehran Trumps the US” (Asia Times, 23 June 2011).

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