Assad needs to listen, not just hear

In sharp contrast to the European failure in a humanitarian crisis on the tiny island of Lampedusa following the arrival of some 15,000 Tunisians by boat, Turkey has declared an open-arms policy to refugees fleeing a violent crackdown by the Syrian military on antigovernment protest movements. The government of Turkey has not set the limit on the number of refugees it would accept so far and did not even ask for any assistance from foreign governments or international organizations. For the time being, Turkey is managing to hold its own.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even rebuked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s special envoy over his request on Wednesday for a forceful return of refugees to Syria, saying it was simply out of the question without any firm assurances on the safety and security of these people. Not only did the government scramble to help out Syrian refugees but a host of nongovernmental organizations started to provide all kinds of assistance to make what many hoped was a “temporary stay” of these uprooted people as comfortable as possible.

Turkish efforts received praise from a top representative of the UN’s refugee agency, who expressed gratitude for Turkey’s open border policy for Syrians fleeing violence amid unrest and the government crackdown. “Turkey is the sole country to declare an open border policy. This is indeed a very impressive operational approach. As the [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] UNHCR, we are ready to extend any help we can,” Carol Batchelor of the UNHCR was quoted as saying last Sunday.

Many reporters, including ours, complained earlier last week that access to refugees to recount personal tales of their tragic experiences was pretty much cut off by the Turkish Foreign Ministry for security reasons. Restrictions were later relaxed. Although I do not like the way the crisis was being handled by the ministry in terms of preventing open and unfettered access to refugee camps by reporters, I can understand the reasons why Turkish officials initially decided to implement a media blackout.

The main reason is obvious: Refugees are still shaken and frightened by the events they experienced. They are afraid Syrian security operatives will attack their relatives who are still in Syria and want to keep their personal property and possessions from being confiscated. Most refugees willing to talk do not give their real names and shun requests for photo-ops. There is understandably a concern about Syrian intelligence officers posing as refugees to keep track of what is happening in these camps set up by Turks. Turkish officials also worry about unconfirmed reports and conflicting accounts of what has really been happening in border towns on the Syrian side.

The paramount concern for Turkey, however, is how to filter these refugees in order to identify potential security risks. Many of the people in refugee camps are Kurdish and were screened carefully with background checks and security clearances. Turks are concerned that the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) might exploit security flaws created by the growing refugee crisis along the Syrian border and may use the passages to beef up their diminishing ranks in Hatay and neighboring provinces. Last year, PKK terrorists stormed a Turkish naval base in the port city of Iskenderun, Hatay province, killing six Turkish soldiers in the attack. Some of these terrorists were later killed or captured, leading to disarray in PKK ranks. The PKK wants to replenish its human assets.

Moreover, Turkey needs to consider the fact that there is an element of showcasing by Damascus which seems to be sending a message that it can raise the stakes for neighboring countries if it is pushed into a corner. The Syrian regime knows very well that the armed assault, backed by tanks and armed gunships in the northern part of the country, would cause a mass exodus to Turkey. It is like firing a shot across the bow, signaling that Damascus means business. They did the same in the southern border by allowing demonstrators to attempt to break through cease-fire lines in the Golan Heights, which have been quiet for 40 years.

But Turkey may easily call the Syrian bluff by being very hard on the Assad regime and facilitating strong international condemnation, eventually paving the way for UN-mandated intervention to halt hostilities and prevent a crackdown on civilian protesters. If the crisis gets out of hand, prompting an imminent and clear danger to national security, Turkey may even act unilaterally to secure the border areas by creating a buffer zone inside Syrian territory. We hear that contingency planning is already in place and that a notice for a “call to duty” for reserves in the southeastern region was already issued.

I think we have already passed the point of no return in the Syrian crisis and reached the critical threshold. Remarks by the Turkish foreign minister yesterday underlining that time has run out for Syria are a clear indicator that Ankara is ready to throw in the towel on the Assad regime. The final, though bitter, message relayed to Damascus was that it may have only one shot left in its arsenal to get out of this mess: the immediate implementation of comprehensive political reforms. Otherwise, Assad and his family could very well be on their way to becoming international pariahs sought by the International Criminal Court for crimes committed against their own people.

Turkey, a NATO member country with a Muslim majority and with some leverage among Western powers as well as with Russia, China and the Arab world, is the only friend who can deliver what Assad has wanted all along — namely, stabilizing the country and keeping it from plunging into a sectarian civil war. It is time for Assad to listen, not just hear, what Erdoğan has been saying to him for some time now.

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