Turkey stands against arms shipments to Syria
Policymakers and analysts worry that funneling more arms into Syria will fuel an already combustible situation.
By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Turkiye -- 08/02/12
As the Syrian opposition accuses Iran and Russia of directly helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad violently repress the 11-month uprising, Turkey is trying to block weapons transfers to Syria via its territory. But the effort comes at a time when some are calling for the international community to help arm the Syrian opposition Free Syrian Army.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday (February 7th) that Russia's and China's veto of a UN resolution condemning violence in Syria gave the Assad regime “a license to kill”. [Reuters]
Based on its experience repressing the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran, media reports support Western governments' and the Syrian oppositions' claims that Iran is sending men, expertise and material to help Assad control the uprising which has claimed nearly 6,000 lives, according to the UN. Meanwhile, Russia continues to sell weapons to Syria -- an estimated $1.5 billion in contracts, or 10% of Russia's total arms sales.
Last summer, Turkey moved to increase inspections at Syrian border checkpoints in order to block arms deliveries to Syria. Most recently, on January 14th, Turkish customs officials impounded four Iranian-registered trucks at the Turkey-Syria border crossing in Kilis on suspicion of carrying "military materials" to Syria. Ankara says the trucks were violating a UN embargo on Syria, a claim denied by Tehran.
"Turkey has previously intercepted several arms shipments from Iran to Syria," says Yasin Atlioglu, a Syria analyst at the Istanbul-based Turkish Asian Centre for Strategic Studies.
He notes that Tehran and Damascus have enjoyed a close military alliance, in part because the Assad regime has supported Iran's attempts to arm the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon.
Atlioglu says Assad may not need Iranian weapons himself, but that the regime tries to remain a regional power and supporter of Iran's policies by playing the Hezbollah card.
"In recent years we see that Russia appears upfront as an arms supplier of Syria," he adds.
Kenan Erturk, a retired colonel and head of the Terrorism Research Centre at the 21st Century Turkey Institute, an Istanbul-based think-tank, says preventing weapons transfers is not easy because "there are always other options for them [Russia and Iran] to do so."
Intercepting arms shipments through Turkey requires accurate intelligence, he says, as not every boat or truck can be searched.
AKP deputy Metin Metiner says Turkey is strongly controlling its borders and stands against any illegal activity, including the arming of both the Assad regime and the opposition.
"Turkey wants to see a peaceful solution," he said. For Ayse Zarakol, assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University, Turkey is "not doing more than it has been doing already".
"When they have intelligence about such shipments, they do stop them while they are within Turkish borders," she told SES Türkiye. In the case of Iran, she says "Iran's official position is to deny that they are doing this, which makes public diplomacy difficult."
Zarakol highlights that Ankara strives to work with the international community, something that also applies to speculation Turkey is providing military aid to the Free Syrian Army.
"I do not think the Turkish government will get involved in arming the rebels without the approval of the international community or some type of UN resolution. It would be too hard to sell domestically."
As for the Syrian opposition, Syrian National Council spokesman Khaled Khoja told SES Türkiye, "We expect from Turkey to keep co-ordinating with the Arab League in leading the international community to come up with any solution that may protect civilians, including the option of safe zones and corridors and [to] delegitimise Assad's regime. In this case, I believe that the Free Syrian Army will topple the regime itself without any foreign military intervention."