2012-01-23

Arab League extends mission, issues road map

Turkey has taken a tough line against Assad -- losing its neutrality in the process -- as the conflict in Syria drags on with no clear end in sight.

By Tulin Daloglu for SES Türkiye in Ankara -- 23/01/12

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The Arab League is extending its observer mission to Syria for an additional month in an attempt to find a peaceful solution to the ten month-long uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The League, after meeting in Cairo on Sunday (January 22nd), also announced a road map to lead the country towards national unity through negotiations with the opposition. It called on Assad to step down and hand power to his vice-president within two weeks in preparation for a national unity government to be formed within two months, and eventually elections.

It remains unclear what steps would be taken if Syria fails to follow the League's directives, but the League said it would seek support for its plan from the United Nations. Syrian state-run television SANA quoted an unnamed Syrian official on Monday criticising the Arab League plan, calling it a violation of its national sovereignty.

The League said Assad had not complied with the peace plan agreed to last month in which Syria would release prisoners, remove the military from urban centres and end the violent crackdown on protestors.

Supporters of the mission say it has calmed the violence and allowed the international community an eye into Syria, but critics argue Assad used the mission as diplomatic cover to continue the crackdown that has claimed hundreds of lives since the mission started last month. According to the UN, over 5,000 deaths have occurred since March.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Anatolian News Agency that Turkey supported the Arab initiative, but warned that if the violence continues, the situation would become further internationalised and Turkey would support measures in the UN Security Council. On Tuesday, Davutoglu plans to visit Security Council veto wielding Russia, a close ally of Syria, for discussions.

For Turkey, promises of reform from Assad have come too little, too late; all faith in the Syrian regime has been lost.

Turkey has clearly cast itself against its former friend Assad and sided with the opposition, prompting some in Turkey to criticise the government for losing its neutral regional stance.

Turkey is hosting the external political opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is calling for the international community to take Syria to the UN Security Council and for international intervention in the form of a "safe zone".

Meanwhile, the command and control centre of the Free Syria Army (FSA), a group of army defectors which has clashed with the regime and vowed to protect protestors, is based in Hatay province on the Turkish border with Syria.

Clashes between the FSA and Syrian security forces in Idlid province across the border in Syria have become increasingly common.

Turkey denies providing weapons to the FSA while the FSA has said they are receiving no armed support, a claim verified by various media outlets and SES Türkiye.

Ilhan Tanir, a Turkish journalist who is currently in Syria, told SES Türkiye that there is no sign of Turkish support of weapons or ammunition to the opposition in Syria.

"I met different opposition leaders in different places. These cells are independent of each other," he says. "There is no such help from Turkey. On the contrary, they have a serious problem in the lack of weapons and ammunition."

Still, Turkey has already clearly taken sides while the protestors and regime appear to be heading for an extended deadlock -- and the international community struggles to develop a common policy.

Timur Goksel, a former UNIFIL adviser, told to SES Türkiye that Ankara may have underestimated the ability of the regime to survive and overestimated the leverage Turkey had over a country once considered as the model of its "zero problems" foreign policy.

"We tell Assad to remove his tanks off the streets, but we don't say who will rule the streets once the tanks are gone," says Goksel, a professor at the American University of Beirut, referring to the inability of the Syrian opposition to unite and present a viable alternative to Assad. "As long as he [Assad] sees the need to protect the interests and future of Alawites and his close circle, the bloodshed will continue," he added.

"The country's 12-13 security organisations, half-million army are still loyal to the regime," he says, acknowledging that although there have been defections to the FSA they are minimal compared to the army.

"There is a tremendous bureaucracy in Syria that overlaps with the Baath party. How many fled away from this?" he adds. To Goksel, though, "Whether Assad stays in power or not, no one can now disregard people's demands. This is a fantastic victory for a people who have been oppressed for 40 years."

Opposition CHP deputy and Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee member Faruk Logoglu told SES Türkiye extending the League's mission in Syria was the right decision, adding that solving the crisis will require patience.

Working with Russia, Iran, and the Arab League, Logoglu says Turkey should help create dialogue between Syria and the opposition to end the violence.

"Turkey -- a neighbouring country which used to have a close relationship with the Syrian regime up until nine months ago, and an influential party on the Syrian opposition -- should help the regime and the opposition to start a political process ending the violence and forming the desired democratic system," he says.

However, he levels criticism at the AKP government because it has lost some of its influence in Syria.

"But the Turkish government is only co-operating with the Syrian opposition, and totally dismissing the Syrian regime. As a result, it has taken sides in this conflict and lost its impact," he adds.

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