The Syria Game of Thrones: Turkey vs. Iran vs. the Saudis in Battle to Shape a Rebellion’s Outcome

17 Nov

The Arab League called Wednesday for “urgent measures”  to protect Syrian civilians in the face of violent repression by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. But lest anyone take that as an echo of the  call that legitimized the NATO-led military operation in Libya, the League’s statement also rejected  “all foreign intervention” in Syria. Still, signs are growing that Syria’s escalating power struggle is more likely to be be settled  by outside forces than by the Syrians themselves.

Through more than nine months of escalating repression that has killed as many as 3,500 people, the regime has not been able to suppress the uprising. Weekly protests continue; the scale of regime assaults on the city of Homs suggests it remains an opposition stronghold; and a dramatic series of overnight attacks Wednesday by soldiers who’ve crossed over to the insurgent Free Syrian Army — including a brazen guerrilla assault on a Syrian intelligence base on the edge of Damascus — suggested that civil war is already a reality.

But if the regime is unable to crush the uprising, the opposition still appears to lack the power to topple the regime. The core of Assad’s military remains intact, and willing to carry out the regime’s plan to shoot its way out of the crisis. In the major cities, much of the Sunni urban middle class has remained on the sidelines, while Assad maintains a substantial support base primarily among Syria’s Allawite and Christian minorities, many of whom accept the regime’s portrayal of the opposition as a sectarian Sunni lynch mob.

To the extent that Assad’s repression has pushed the opposition towards an increasingly militarized response, that actually reinforces the regime’s narrative that Syria is in the throes of a sectarian civil war, with Assad casting himself as the protector of Allawites and Christians. On that basis, the regime also appears to have divided the region, with Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen — countries with significant Shi’ite populations, and in the case of Iraq, substantial Iranian influence — having declined  to back the original Arab League suspension of Syria. Also, many key leaders of Christian communities in other Arab countries appear to have come out in support of Assad.

Assad can also count on solid backing from Russia, for whom Assad’s Syria is a key geostrategic asset because it provides the Russian navy’s only Mediterranean port, and also from Iran, for which Syria has been the key Arab ally.

But other regional players are raising their pressure on Damascus. The Arab League, with Turkey in attendance, on Wednesday gave Syria three (more) days to act on a deal it claimed  to have accepted two weeks ago — but ignored in on the ground — to halt repression,  withdraw its army from restive towns, and accept Arab monitors. The League suspended Syria’s membership, and  sanctions should Damascus fail to comply. Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin reported that last-minute diplomacy by Russia and Iran averted harsher and more immediate measures by the League.

Turkey had a more menacing message ahead of the summit, with officials warning that Syria would “pay a heavy price” for continue killing of its “oppressed people”, and threatening to cut off electrical supplies following an attack on its embassy in Damascus by a pro-Assad mob. Officials in Ankara have begun to speak openly about creating a “buffer zone” inside Syriawhere it could protect refugees from the crackdown without having to admit them to Turkish territory. That, of course, would mean sending Turkish troops into Syria, and might presage a territorial breakup of Syria into rebel- and regime-controlled areas. But Turkey is waiting for international authorization to take such a step. “It seems out of the question for us to do that on our own,” said an adviser to President Abdullah Gul.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once counted Assad as a personal friend, is now sending a message that the Syrian leader can’t be trusted. “No one any longer expects [Assad’s regime] to meet the expectations of the people and of the international community,” he said Tuesday. “Our wish is that the Assad regime, which is now on a knife edge, does not enter this road of no return, which leads to the edge of the abyss.”

By virtue of its large, well-armed and -organized military (the second largest in NATO), its long border with Syria, its extensive trade relations with Syria and its popularity among Arab peoples who have cast off their dictators, Turkey may have more leverage than all others with skin in the game.

But Ankara is using its leverage cautiously. The truth is that Syria buys very little electricity from Turkey, and until now, Turkey hasn’t halted most of the $2.5 billion a year in trade between the two countries. Perhaps the most dramatic Turkish shot across Assad’s bows has been Ankara’s hosting, not only of the opposition Syrian National Council, but also of the leadership of the insurgent Free Syrian Army. But at the same time, it has imposed limits on FSA activities on its soil.   “Turkey has never offered us even one bullet and has even completely banned operations on the border, or on the road to the border,” the FSA’s Turkey-based commander Ryad al-Asa’ad  told the BBC. “On the other hand, we are from inside Syria, we work inside Syria and the weapons are from Syria.”

Turkey’s increasingly apocalyptic language nonetheless suggests that Assad might turn back from the abyss.

To the extent that the positions of outside players determine Syria’s outcome, it becomes yet another  theater of an increasingly complex regional power game.  The Arab monarchies have been rallied by the Saudis to mount an aggressive counter-revolutionary campaign, sensing U.S. paralysis in the face of the region-wide democratic rebellion. Riyadh has viewed events in the region through the prism of their (anti-Shi’ite) sectarian outlook and strategic rivalry with Iran, orchestrating the repression of the democratic protest movement in Shi’ite-majority Bahrain. But Assad is an Iranian ally, his regime dominated by the crypto-Shi’ite Allawite sect lording it over the Sunni majority. So the Arab counter-revolutionaries find themselves moving to the side of Syria’s Sunni revolutionaries, although a Muslim Brotherhood victory there wouldn’t necessarily be Riyadh’s optimal outcome.

The U.S. and other Western powers have long loathed the Assad regime over its interventions in Lebanon, its support for Hamas and enabling of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. But they have also worked with it — Syria fought alongside the U.S. in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, and Syrian intelligence played an important role in hunting al-Qaeda after 9/11. They also fear that the regime’s collapse  could have a potentially catastrophic impact on neighboring countries whose own sectarian power balances connect with Syria’s own. That’s why Western powers have remained cautious, preferring to see Assad undertake reforms than be overthrown. U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford  has repeatedly warned the opposition to refrain from taking up arms, which he says would play into the regime’s hands — and that NATO would not ride to the rescue.

But the U.S. no longer calls the shots in the region, even among those traditionally in its camp. The Saudis are doing their own thing, Qatar is flexing muscles nobody knew it had, and then there’s Turkey, whose break with the U.S. on Iran and on Israel had many hawks in Washington proclaiming that Ankara had gone over to the dark side of their binary Mideast equation. But nothing is that simple: While Turkey has challenged U.S. policies it deems destructive and dysfunctional — from the invasion of Iraq to its efforts to isolate Iran — and has confronted Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, all of those positions reflect of majority public sentiment throughout the Middle East. But America and Israel’s loss was not Iran’s gain: In the same week Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador, it also agreed to house a NATO radar system deployed to counter Iran’s missile threat. And Iran was horrified to see the ascendant Islamists of Egypt and Tunisia embrace the moderate, secular Turkish example as their political model rather than Iran’s theocratic extremism. Syria was the last straw, however, with Tehran making it clear it deemed action against Assad a “red line”.  But horrified by the repression in Syria and outraged by promises broken by Assad, Turkey simply ignored Tehran’s objections and began piling on pressure.

Despite their common interest in tackling Assad, many of those Arab regimes don’t much like the idea of Turkish influence spreading much more than they like the idea of Iranian influence spreading — except that in this instance, Iran concurs! Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu this week rejected domestic criticism that Turkey’s pressure on Assad was “subcontracting” for the U.S. Turkey’s foreign policy was based on principle, he said. Sometimes “it might be in harmony with the United States; sometimes with Iran, sometimes with Russia, sometimes with the EU.” Turkey would not be deterred from a position simply because it was in accord with Washington’s — but as it has demonstrated over the past three years, nor will it abide by U.S. positions with which it differs.

Turkey more successfully than most other international players has made the transition from being on cordial terms with Arab autocrats to acting in support of those trying to overthrow them. And with the Islamists emerging as the dominant political force in the emerging Arab democracies, Turkey’s example has further boosted its soft-power influence.  But should Syria maintain its current course, it could become a hard-power challenge to Turkey, and others, obliging them to adopt an end-game that could resolve the crisis without setting the region ablaze.At least on that score, they’re all in agreement.


Posted by on November 17, 2011 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “The Syria Game of Thrones: Turkey vs. Iran vs. the Saudis in Battle to Shape a Rebellion’s Outcome

  1. Valentin

    November 17, 2011 at 7:10 am

    AL, Turkish Stance against Syria Escalated

    Local Editor
    The head of the Arab League urged the organization to act decisively Wednesday to stem what he called “bloodshed in Syria.”

    The talks in the Moroccan capital is intended to discuss further measures against Syria which was suspended by the 22-member bloc last weekend after it failed to implement an Arab peace plan.
    These would include sanctions such as the withdrawal of ambassadors.

    Arab League secretary-general Nabil al-Arabi said he hoped that Arab moves to send observers to Syria would bear fruit within days. But he reiterated that no observers would be sent before a clear agreement is signed between the Arab League and Damascus.

    Syria agreed to receive 500 members of human rights groups, media representatives and military observers to its territory, which the pan-Arab said it would welcome them to see the situation on the ground and help implement the peace plan.

    Despite its suspension from the bloc, Syria had been invited to Wednesday’s meeting but decided to boycott it.
    As Arab foreign ministers gathered in Morocco, Turkey also joined in the diplomatic assault on its neighbor, saying “it must pay dearly for its attempts to crush an uprising.”

    “The cost for the Syrian administration of not fulfilling the promises it made to the Arab League (to end violence) is its isolation in the Arab world as well,” Ahmet Davutoglu told his Arab counterparts.
    “The Syrian administration should read the messages given by the Arab League, immediately put an end to the violence against its own people and open the way for an inevitable transformation process,” he added.
    Turkey, once a close ally of Syria, has escalated its criticism of Assad’s regime since the Syrian crisis began.

    “A future cannot be built on the blood of the innocent, otherwise history will remember those leaders as the ones who feed on blood,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday.
    Turkey has already announced a halt to joint oil exploration with Syria and has threatened to cut electricity exports there.

    For its part, the White House said it welcomed the “strong stance Turkey has taken.”
    “Turkey’s comments today further point to the fact that President Assad is isolated”, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters.

    The United States also urged Arab leaders to step up pressure on Damascus.

    They should tell Assad “that he needs to allow for a democratic transition to take place and to end the violence against his own people,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

    On Monday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II urged Assad to step down, becoming the first Arab head of state to call for the Syrian president’s resignation.
    This call coincided with the martyrdom of eight Syrian army soldiers in an assault carried out by armed gangs Wednesday morning at a military post in the town of Kfarzita, north-west the city of Hama, Syrian Observatory reported.

    Syrian People Reject AL Decision, France Recalls Ambassador

    Local Editor
    On the 41st anniversary of the Correctionist Movement, huge masses flocked on Wednesday to the public squares at a number of major Syrian provinces, to express support to the Syrian independent and sovereign national decision, affirming loyalty to their homeland.

    Participants in the rallies stressed adherence to the national unity, importance of maintaining security and stability, and rejection of the Arab League’s decision against Syria and the foreign interference in Syria’s internal affairs.

    In the capital Damascus, youth groups turned the streets leading to the Squares of Umayyad and Saba’ Bahrat into national platforms to express to the whole world that Syria is immune to conspiracies, stressing their absolute rejection of the AL decision.

    In the same context, masses of youth gathered outside the Arab League office in Damascus to stress the Syrians’ rejection of the League’s decisions and of any foreign interference in their country’s internal affairs.

    Those marches coincide with that of the coastal province of Lattakia, where mass crowds from all the Syrian provinces streamed to the tomb of the late President Hafez al-Assad in al-Qerdaha city to stress their adherence to the firm principles set by the Correctionist Movement on its 41st anniversary.
    The participants took the oath of President Hafez al-Assad swearing to remain united, committed to the pledge and the late President’s resistant approach, adhered to the Syrian army and to continue the course following President Bashar al-Assad.

    Similar marches occurred in Tartous, Aleppo and Hama, where participants called upon the Arabs not to follow instigation and conspiring calls against Syria, emphasizing that Syria, thanks to its aware people, will be immune to all conspiracies.
    Meanwhile, France has recalled its ambassador to Syria on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.

    US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, abruptly withdrawn last month claiming the cause for security threats, is supposed to return to Syria in “days to weeks,” Washington has lately said.
    The Arab League was meeting in Rabat on Wednesday, along with Turkey, to try to agree action to solve the situation in Syria.

  2. Fabio

    November 17, 2011 at 7:53 am

    ‘With Erdogan breathing down their neck, will Syria’s Kurds turn against Assad?

    “… But if a good number of Kurds appear willing to turn against Assad, they’ve been wary about joining forces with the SNC’s government-in-exile for a number of reasons. To begin, some refused to join on account of the early chauvinist noises—made by several members, including Ghalioun himself—about retaining the Syrian republic’s “Arab” identity. More recently, others have worried about inadequate Kurdish representation on the Council…
    But regardless of the details, these squabbles are underscored by a larger, more troubling fact. The Kurds don’t have full faith in the SNC, and their concerns stem largely from the council’s seeming dependence on its host nation, Turkey, particularly the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party headed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “I believe Turkey is playing a negative role in the SNC in terms of the Kurdish issue,” Dr. Anwar Yussfu, Britain’s representative of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria, told me via email. “Erdogan knows that any constitutional recognition of the Kurds in Syria would mean the same, if not more, should be happening in Turkey next.” Still other Kurds fear that Erdogan’s close relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood means that the SNC is being jerry-rigged to give Syrian Islamists a larger role in the opposition than their on-the-ground constituency merits. Mahmood Muhammed, another member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, told the Kurdish-Iraqi news agency Rudaw that “the goal of the Syrian National Council meeting in Istanbul is to tell the world that the Kurdish role in this revolution is weak and that the future new rule of Syria will be in the hands of [the] Muslim Brotherhood.”
    Potential Turkish meddling in the SNC’s affairs is a big problem because Kurdish separatism is still the prism through which Ankara views all regional convulsions. Erdogan may voice sympathy for the Palestinians and other stateless peoples, but he’s not nearly as sympathetic when it comes to the PKK, which still wreaks havoc in eastern Turkey through terrorist attacks on soldiers and civilians. Last year, Erdogan threatened to drown the PKK “in their own blood,” a promise he’s since made good on with ferocious retaliatory strikes that extend into Iraqi Kurdistan, long thought to be the PKK’s base of operations…
    Later this month, the Kurdish National Council, which presents itself as an alternative, strictly Kurdish-Syrian opposition group, will convene in Erbil, in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq, to decide whether it should suspend participation in the SNC. The Syrian opposition can scarcely afford to let this happen. It took them eight months to form a transitional body worthy of being shopped for international legitimacy. By contrast, the Libyans took about two weeks to form the National Transitional Council, which remained relatively cohesive and united through the six-month campaign to topple Qaddafi.
    To ensure that Syria’s Kurds don’t abandon the opposition, the SNC needs to move fast with a number of concrete reassurances, including increased representation in all decision-making bodies and the speedy drafting of a provisional constitution that would spell out, in no uncertain terms, what the Kurds can expect in the post-Assad era. Here’s where the U.S. State Department, rather than the Turkish Foreign Ministry, ought to lead from the front.”


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