Glimmer of hope for Syria before Arab League’s exit

I was a short distance away from the explosion that ripped through a busy intersection in the Syrian capital on Friday, hitting a police bus and killing at least 26 people. I was busy watching a small pro-government demonstration in the courtyard of the historic Omayya Mosque after Friday prayers, a frequent occurrence organized by regime loyalists to show the Bashar al-Assad still has the backing of the people. Amid the anti-US and anti-Israeli rhetoric of the rally, young people were chanting slogans like “Turkey and Syria in unity,” hoping to strike a tone with Turks watching the crowd.

The bombing was a stark reminder that life is far from normal in the Syrian capital, where the opposition has long been at odds with the authoritarian Bashar al-Assad regime. Accusations were traded between the government and opposition over who instigated the deadly attack. The government blamed insurgents, while the opposition claimed that the notorious Syrian intelligence services had organized the attack in order to suppress the rallies and influence the upcoming initial report by Arab League monitors, scheduled to be discussed two days later in Cairo.

I am not sure the presence of Arab League monitors is helping to improve the situation. Through sheer luck I was staying at the same hotel, the Cham Palace in downtown Damascus, as the head of the Arab League observer mission, Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi of Sudan. We often bumped into each other in the lobby and he was visibly nervous, chain smoking during morning meetings with his aides. He said he has not yet made up his mind over the events taking place in Syria. Al-Dabi is in the hot seat: Facing a barrage of criticism from Arab officials as well as the Western audience, his credibility and integrity has been openly questioned.

To his credit, I must point out that he has at least secured the freedom of hundreds of political prisoners as well as convincing the government to remove heavy armor from the cities and show restraint in the use of deadly force. It is difficult to predict what will happen a month from now, when the monitors leave Syria.

Following a government-organized visit to the restive city of Homs in the northwest, it became clear that Syrian government officials are in total denial of what has been taking place in their country. They hoped to convince us, including reporters from Turkey, Germany, Japan, Algeria and Austria, that all the killings were perpetrated by insurgents and that the army had intervened solely to protect the residents of the city. We were expected to be naïve and take their word for it without question. The governor of Homs, Ghassan Abdul-Al, was typically evasive in his responses and appeared to be disconnected from reality. He could not even confirm the number of investigations launched into extra-judicial killings committed by security forces.

There has been a definite breakdown of dialogue between the opposition and the government in Syria, reinforced by a lack of trust and huge differences over in which direction the country should be heading. The Alewite-controlled regime has consolidated the ranks of the Alewite minority, fuelling fears of possible Sunni reprisal if or when the regime falls. It may even be possible that some of the brutal attacks on Alewite districts might have been orchestrated by the Syrian intelligence forces in order to shore up support for the regime among Alewites. The crystallization of differences between Alewite and Sunni neighborhoods is already under way and the two communities are reportedly arming themselves for the day of reckoning.

Assad’s regime realizes that it is playing a game of survival and understands that it has little chance of winning this as the region and the world continue to ostracize them. The only card it has left to play is to convince other countries that all hell will break loose if the regime collapses. It has even armed the Kurdish minority in the north, hoping that Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants will consolidate their power base in Syria and therefore act as a buffer zone against possible Turkish intervention.

Turkey’s shift in attitude, from close friend to open critic of the regime, has had a shocking impact here. In the last nine years, Turkey has been a gateway out of international isolation for the Syrian people. Millions of Syrians were visiting Turkey, having their weddings in Turkish cities, conducting trade and getting education there. This link has now been completely cut off. The Syrian regime is busy trying to portray Turkey as acting in line with Western and Israeli interests, although they are sufficiently careful not to accuse Turkey directly.

There is a reason for that, of course. For one, Turkey has not used all of its power to isolate Syria, fearing that rapid destabilization would do a great disservice to the region. The slapping of nine-point, smart sanctions on Syria by Turkey in November is mostly symbolic, as they only target the upper echelons of the Syrian regime. The visa-free travel and code-sharing agreements between Turkish airlines and their Syrian counterparts are still in place. Turkey did not even initiate the suspension of the free trade agreement with Syria. It was the Syrian regime itself that decided to shelve the agreement, shooting themselves in the foot as the price of commodities has inevitably surged in Syria. It was a stupid move on the part of the Syrian government.

In my opinion, Turkey may have rushed decisions made regarding Syria. This is possibly as a result of guilt over Libya, when Turkey only took up a position against Gaddafi at a relatively late stage. However, in our haste we have lost an important window of opportunity to intervene in Syria to calm the situation down. Turkey could very well be a perfect mediator between the desperate Syrian regime and the opposition, relying on the respect that Turkey has built up with both sides over time. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threw the towel in and abandoned Assad, we lost that valuable leverage.

Now, the main question is what other options remain available to Turkey with respect to Syria. From talk I’ve heard here from the president, vice president, foreign minister and senior religious figures I sense there is still considerable appetite for restoring ties with Turkey. Assad believes this hiccup between the two countries is temporary. This might represent a final and very narrow window of opportunity that could avoid civil war or outside intervention in Syria. To capitalize on this opportunity, we have to review what steps the Assad regime is willing to take in order for the Turkish government to sell this as a major step forward to Turkish voters, to Syria’s opposition and to the belligerent West. Tangible and swift change in Syria may provide enough room to maneuver for Turkish diplomacy, and we may be able to get dialogue back on track.

Unfortunately, we do not have much time to make the most of this narrow opportunity. The Islamist-based Turkish Felicity Party’s (SP) leader Mustafa Kamalak’s last ditch effort in Damascus last week may well have served a vital purpose, buying us precious time. However, as more blood is spilled, the opposition and the regime will become more firmly entrenched, moving away from the reconciliation at lightning speed. In the end, both sides will lock themselves in a tight corner, and in all likelihood an all-out civil war is inevitable.

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