Turkey calculates military role in Syria if diplomacy fails
Syrian armed opposition opens a new chapter in the eight-month uprising against the Assad regime, highlighting Turkey's pivotal role in Syria.
By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye -- 21/11/11
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), an armed opposition group made up of defected soldiers with its central command based in southern Turkey, claimed responsibility -- then later retracted responsibility -- for an attack on the Baath Party headquarters in Damascus on Sunday (November 20th).
Demonstrators protest the government of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul on November 18th. [Reuters]
No casualties were reported in the rocket propelled grenade attack, but it dealt a psychological blow to the heart of the regime in Damascus, a city that has remained relatively quiet during the course of the eight-month uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The attack came just hours after the Arab League, which suspended Syria's membership last week, rebuffed a request by Damascus to amend plans for a 500-strong monitoring mission to Syria.
Sunday's attack was the second major strike by the FSA after the November 16th attack on a Syrian Air Force Intelligence facility in Harasta, just outside Damascus. The FSA, which claims it has "22 "battalions" across the country, says it is protecting protestors from the brutal tactics of the regime and has increasingly engaged in hit and run attacks on Syrian security forces.
Turkey has been harbouring the head of the FSA, Colonel Riad al Asaad, in refugee camps in Hatay. He, along with other defectors, entered Turkey with refugees this summer. Both Colonel Asaad and Ankara have denied Turkey is providing armed support to the group.
Veysel Ayhan, a Syria analyst at the Ankara-based Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, says Turkey now has less concern regarding its links to the FSA.
"Turkey is not denying its support to the Syrian armed groups, as it has been clear in calling for Syria's regime to reform or die, but for now, Ankara is focusing more on achieving sanctions against Assad in the coming days," he said, adding that Turkish leaders have already come to the conclusion Assad is incapable of implementing reforms and that "his days are numbered."
Meanwhile, media reports indicate Turkey has been developing contingency plans to establish a buffer-zone or no-fly zone in northern Syria in the event of mass refugee flows, regime collapse, or harsher crackdowns by the Syrian regime.
Some in the Syrian opposition view a buffer zone as a possible bridgehead from which to launch an armed uprising against the Assad regime, similar to the one in Libya that toppled Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Last week, the outlawed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has taken a key role in the opposition Syrian National Council based in Turkey, stated that the Syrian people would accept military intervention by Turkey, rather than Western countries, to protect them from Assad's security forces.
Mehmet Metiner, MP from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), says Ankara is very concerned about the risk of violence in Syria morphing into a civil war.
In the worst case scenario, he says, Turkey might join international military intervention, if sanctions and diplomacy fail.
"If Syria forces our patience, we will take any step along with our international allies," he explained, adding that Ankara would expect support from allies in the West.
"The turnaround in Turkey's policy on Syria has been quite extraordinary -- after initially attacking the West for its criticism of Assad, [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is now attacking the West for not doing more against Assad!" says Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst, adding, however, he would be surprised "if Turkey takes any major steps unilaterally".
"Turkey's policy at the moment seems to be to put pressure on the international community to take the initiative in drawing up a hardline policy and then to participate in the implementation of the policy. But I don't see any desire in Turkey to go it alone," he noted.
Jenkins warns that Turkey has to be very careful. "The Syrian opposition is still very fragmented. Although I think most people now think it is only a question of when, not if, Assad eventually goes, it isn't clear who or what is likely to replace him."
According to Ayhan, the AKP government needs to consider the opposition's viewpoint before taking any major steps against Syria, as it has been criticised for not doing so.
Yusuf Ziya Irbec, MP from the far-right opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP), told SES Türkiye their only concern at the moment is that Ankara's policy against Syria could affect ordinary civilians in both countries. "The [AKP] government should be very careful and not take steps just by itself."