Departure of Assad and Turkey’s role

We have reached a point of no return with the Syrian authoritarian leadership, with US and European leaders now openly asking for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad who, like his father before him, chose a brutal crackdown over listening to commonsense advice from Turkey and many others. It is a shame that Assad brushed aside all the achievements he has helped Syria gain over the last decade, saving the country from isolation and from being an international pariah to become a country eager to implement reforms such as impressive economic undertakings.

Now it all has gone down to tube thanks to the oppressive mentality of the powerful inner circle Assad leads, with quite a push from the Iranian leadership, I should add. Blood spilled during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan even prompted respected clerics in Syria, in an unprecedented development, to speak out against the government. Dissidents and anti-government opposition have not yet taken up arms, and major cities like Aleppo and Damascus are still quiet. But it may be the calm before the storm violently erupts in this country, and many believe this is definitely coming.

Understandably Turkey is quite upset because it feels betrayed and strung along by the Syrian regime while its armed assault on cities using tanks and gunboats continued, claiming the lives of 2,000 protestors over the last four months alone. There is even speculation that a recent surge in terror attacks by Kurdish militants on Turkish soil may have links to Syrian and/or Iranian intelligence services. Whether Turkey adopts a position in line with Western powers or takes a middle-of-the-road approach, public support to maintaining good neighborly relations with the Syrian regime is dwindling very fast. Assad must realize by now that the current situation is no longer sustainable and that his country is heading towards a civil bloody war that may engulf the whole region.

It is certain that crippling economic sanctions, with Turkey joining the rest of the world, will have a detrimental impact on the Syrian regime. Targeted and phased-in sanctions with Turkish involvement would exact a heavy toll on the Syrian economy. It will deepen crackdowns on the establishment and fuel feuds among ruling clans while turning the Syrian public against the Assad government. The lifeline thrown from Tehran would not be able to save Damascus this time as Iran is itself facing tougher sanctions looming on the horizon. Turkey has so far abided by UN Security Council resolutions calling for stringent measures against Iran but has shied away from unilateral ones imposed by the US and the EU. Iranian involvement in Syrian and Iraqi affairs at the expense of Turkish interests may force Ankara to join in unilateral sanctions as well. Squeezed by sweeping restrictions adopted by the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf Arab countries on the southern trade route, Iran may also face harsher restrictions on the northern trade route via Turkey.

The crucial question is what’s next for Syria now that Assad has squandered all the credit extended him by Turkey and others. I think there appears to be only one credible option in our hands to save Syria from plunging into sectarian and ethnic wars: Assad must be convinced to gracefully exit while someone or a coalition from the ruling establishment who has not tainted his hands with blood must take Assad’s place until sweeping reforms can pave the way to democratic and free elections. Since there is no alternative institutional mechanism to sustain the country while making the transition to a democratic system representing all groups in the country, this appears to be the only viable option to be pursued rigorously at this stage. There are credible reports that some of the powerful minority ruling class, which is composed primarily of Alawites, has already started questioning the government’s initiatives, fearing a backlash from the Sunni majority if the regime falls.

However, the question of who will provide assurances of a safe passage and exile for Assad and his family remains unanswered. I’m sure the specter of whether he will face a Mubarak-like fate at home or criminal prosecution at the International Court of Justice is haunting him. He is already a pariah among his Arab brethren as many Arab countries in the region issued harsh responses to the Syrian crackdown and some withdrew their ambassadors. For the sake of saving the country from an almost certain fate of destabilization, the international community must devise an exit strategy for Assad and his family. People close to Assad describe him as a man who cares about his reputation and his legacy. We have seen this in the Syrian reaction to the Hariri investigation. The possibility that he may go down in history as a man who saved Syria from the brink of a doomsday scenario, albeit with colossal mistakes made by Assad and his gang, may be enough incentive for him to depart from power.

Assad must have realized that Turkey, not Iran, is the key to getting out of this tight jam that he has put Syria in. If and when Turkey decides to distance itself from Syria, this would precipitate the fall of the regime and delegitimize the government. With Turkey siding against Assad, other Arab countries in the region would be emboldened to further exert pressure against the Syrian regime. The intervention by Turkey in Muslim and Western capitals in order to provide a chance for Assad to adopt comprehensive reforms delayed openly calling for his departure until this week, and Assad knows this very well. If Turkey extracts itself from the equation, the whole world will come down hard on the Syrian regime, possibly even leading to an armed intervention.

Assad must appreciate the fact that Turkey has never played on majority Sunni fears in Syria and kept pretty much silent on increasing Iranian activities in the country. It did not allow him to be a proxy in the undeclared war between Sunni Arab countries and Shiite regimes in the Middle East. But this may change if Turkey, a Sunni majority country, is pushed into a corner.

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