Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How not to solve Syrian crisis

Almost a month ago, Egypt's ambitious president offered a regional meeting among Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia to end the 18-month violence in Syria and reiterated his initiative earlier this week.

Iran welcomed the suggestion while Turkey said works are underway to elaborate Egypt's proposal on holding the regional meeting. If Saudi Arabia nods to such a meeting, it will be the only high-level Syria meeting that includes Iran, which is the staunch supporter of the Syrian regime, whose ruthless crackdown on the armed opposition has caused the death of more than 20,000 since the uprising started in March last year.

Former American diplomat and an academic Vali Nasr said in his recent The New York Times op-ed that Iran's inclusion in Syria talks is important as it has great leverage in Syria. His view was dismissed by many who contended that Iran is the chief architect of violence in the war-torn country and that Tehran is a part of the problem rather than a solution.

While David Kirkpatrick of the NYT has suggested that Morsi's recent initiative shows that Egypt will be picking a new, independent trajectory without the U.S., Today's Zaman's Bülent Keneş likened Morsi's foreign policy steps to Turkey's what he said "adventuresome" foreign policy it pursued earlier in the past decade. Speaking as if unaware of regional realities and of too much antagonism between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Morsi told Reuters in a recent interview that the balance is key in international relations and that he wants to achieve this goal by reaching out to every actor in the region.

It is obvious that the crisis in Syria is now what many call a "regional crisis," becoming the battleground of influence between Turkey/Saudi Arabia/Qatar and Iran/Russia. If a regional solution to the crisis is possible, it will only be achieved if all actors involved in the peace talks have a genuine desire to end the bloodshed as a first goal rather than advancing their influence inside Syria.

One would expect that a realist would favor fighting to oust the Syrian regime that would deal a huge blow to Iran. But a realist does not only do everything that is in the interest of a state but also calculates all costs and benefits. Getting Syria out of Iran's orbit isn't worth to a bloody and very costly war. In addition, there are better ways of doing it.

Ending the bloodshed in Syria, it seems, is not what Iran wants and hence it will be a likely outcome that the quartet talks will collapse. Both Turkey and Iran, fierce rivals in Syria, claimed that a side they back is closer to "victory." This thinking will also make it almost impossible for actors to make compelling compromises.

With these realities on the ground, Morsi's initiative for the regional meeting on Syria is naive at best. In stable Syria, Turkey would be the winner as it was very successful in getting Damascus out of Iran's orbit before the uprising started last year. Wary of this situation, Iran could hardly consent to a scenario of stability in Syria at the expense of the Syrian regime.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Turkey's incompetence in Syria

How can a country claim to be the Muslim world's moral police and "central state" if a rogue regime's warplanes are killing men, women and children only 3-4 miles away from its border? How can a country reiterate for too many times that it cannot remain indifferent to unceasing violence in its neighbor and yet do nothing when it can?

When critics blast Turkish foreign policy establishment for remaining impotent to unfolding crisis in neighboring Syria, Turkish diplomats are almost always on the defensive: It is Syrian president who did this.

Syrian regime was more friendly to Turkey than any of its neighbors, including Iran for several years. It did little, if any, to outrage Turkish people and its government in the course of the uprising in the country that has now left more than 20,000 dead. Syria regime is brutal, ruthless and it is using indiscriminate force against opposition fighters as well as civilians. But it was careful in not angering Turkey in early months of the uprising.

Turkey had a tremendous leverage both in Damascus and among rebels - an ability neither Iran, Russia or the U.S. had. But it did little to listen Assad's grievances and kept reiterating that Syrian army must stop the crackdown. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu met with Assad for 6 hours on Aug. 9 last year, urging the president to stop the military operations in Hama and Homs. Davutoğlu was right. But he failed to estimate that his deal with Assad would fall apart if the armed opposition staged a single attack, prompting Assad's reprisal.

Instead of maintaining diplomatic track in the hope of nudging Assad into a right direction, Turkey believed that joining in an international coalition determined to isolate Syria would work. It didn't. It miscalculated Assad's power and hoped (and still hopes) that he will leave very soon. He did not.

Let's imagine that Turkish government acknowledged its mistakes but wants to move forward to salvage the situation. For a better outcome than the current situation, Turkey should not only focus on toppling Assad but also prepare for what comes next. Syria is a divided country and transition from dictatorship to democracy seems to be bloody. As it is evident that it is impossible that Turkey could tolerate any transitional regime that Assad is a part of, Turkey must speed up efforts to oust the Syrian president and while doing so, it must send a message that its policies in Syria is not sectarian.

Frequent messages by both Turkish foreign minister and other Turkish officials that Turkey's foreign policy in the region is not sectarian is a clear example that people living in the neighborhood perceive Turkey's policies to be based along sectarian lines. Turkey claims it is supporting only good people and it turns out that the good people, according to Turkey, are most of the times Sunnis.

There are many things Turkey could do to protect civilians while trying to get rid of its ex-friend. One of them is to prevent the increasingly bloody war being waged by the Syria air force in areas close to the Turkish border. In Azaz, only several miles from the Turkish border, Syrian warplanes are ruthlessly bombing rebel-held areas in a bid to root out rebels. Dozens are killed in the air strikes.

According to initial reports, 86 Syrians wounded in the air strikes were brought to southern Turkish province of Kilis and 13 died either on their way to the hospital or at the hospital on Wednesday. This is not only embarrassing situation for Turkey, which claims to be a regional heavyweight, but it is also morally reprehensible.

Syria shot down Turkish warplane in international airspace, 5 miles off the Syria's air space. This is a strong evidence that Syrian military deployment beyond Aleppo up to the Turkish border is a clear threat to Turkey.

Turkey must immediately demand Syria to withdraw all its heavy weapons from areas close to Turkish border and issue a warning that its air force must land warplanes flying close to the Turkish border and bombing civilian areas. If Syria does not comply with Turkey's ultimatum and continue bombing residential areas on the Turkish border, Turkish jets must shoot down some of the Syrian warplanes without hesitation.

Don't worry Turkey, I made a little search and found that dozens of planes were shot down by another state without receiving any retaliation.