Turkey and allies want Syria's Assad out
but not just yet
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (L) speaks
with the chief of staff, General Necdet Ozel, on
December 15, 2011 during a ceremony at the mausoleum
of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal
Ataturk, in Ankara. Photo: AFP/ Adem Altan
ANKARA, — Turkey, with strong backing
from its Arab and Western allies, very much wants
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down -- but
not just yet.
Under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his
post-Islamist ruling party Turkey has become the
main organising hub for Syria's opposition -- the
260-member liberal Syrian National Council, and the
Free Syrian Army, comprising mainly Sunni army
But across the region and in Western capitals there
are fears that Assad's opponents are not ready to
take power, and that Syria's ethnic and sectarian
mosaic could disintegrate and plunge the country of
22 million into chaos unless a way is found to
smooth the transition.
"The key priority is for the opposition inside and
outside (Syria) to come together, become a more
credible option and include all sects and get their
coordination right. Turkey is working on that," a
senior Western diplomat in Ankara told Reuters.
"What worries them is that if Assad went today there
will be more chaos, more destruction and they don't
know who will emerge and they want the opposition to
The main worry, Syria watchers say, is that what
began nine months ago as a civic uprising is turning
into a shooting war capable of spilling into a
lethal sectarian conflict -- especially as the
predominantly Alawite rulers are whipping up the
fears of Syria's minorities that they will be
crushed by the country's Sunni majority.
This deadly cocktail could then be exported to
Syria's fragile multi-confessional neighbours,
particularly Lebanon and Iraq where Damascus has
fanned and exploited sectarian divisions in the past
-- and Turkey itself, where Ankara suspects Syria
has already resumed support for Kurdish insurgents
in the southeast.
While Ankara has publicly warned Damascus against
encouraging the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to
step up its attacks, and raised the stakes by
joining Europe, the United States and the Arab
League in sanctions against the Assad government,
most observers believe Turkey is extremely reluctant
to take any military action.
"I don't expect any military action by the Turkish
government unless there is an international
consensus and a U.N. Security Council resolution or
NATO operation" says Mustafa Akyol, author of "Islam
without extremes: a Muslim case for Liberty".
"They will be more concerned about the Kurdish
situation in Syria, because the PKK has a lot of
Syrian Kurds in its ranks...and the government
believes that Assad is supporting right now the PKK
Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat now head of
the liberal EDAM think-tank in Istanbul, says Ankara
is wary of any rerun of a decade ago, when Kurdish
refugees from Saddam Hussein streamed over the
Turkish border in the aftermath of the Gulf War,www.ekurd.net
and might now move to create a safe haven or
humanitarian corridor inside Syria.
"Turkey certainly doesn't want a repeat of 1991,
when 550,000 Kurds crossed the border in a matter of
days and we were caught unprepared," said Ulgen.
"But Turkey would not do it (a safe haven)
unilaterally. It still would need its partners and
NATO support, but as things stand there is no reason
why NATO would shy away from that".
The US, France, and Turkey are on the same
wavelength, said Ulgen, but Turkey would still want
a Security Council resolution, and regional as well
as NATO support to go ahead.
In a surprising move, Russia, Damascus' longstanding
ally, offered the Security Council on Thursday a
new, stronger draft resolution on Syria, raising
Western hopes of U.N. action following a sharp rise
in sectarian killing.
The Western diplomat, by contrast, thinks Turkey
would be reluctant to create a humanitarian safe
haven because this would commit Turkish troops in
"They will open their facilities and provide a
humanitarian response but I don't think they will
intervene, and nor do they want anybody else to
intervene", he said. "I don't think Turkish troops
want to cross into Syria."
Another Western diplomat in Ankara also doubts there
will be military intervention, believing instead
that sanctions, which are draining the resources of
Assad and eroding his position, will be ratcheted
"The most important is to be able to hit the regime
and undermine its capacity, which will finally hit
is security capability", he says. "There is a
progressive crumbling of the regime and the
population is progressively losing its fear of it".
Senior foreign ministry officials say they fear
Syria could become a new front line in the regional
contest between Saudi Arabia and Syria's last
significant ally, Iran, or, put in sectarian terms,
between Sunnis and Shi'ites of which the Alawites
who form the backbone of the Assad establishment are
an arcane offshoot.
"The regional entanglement between Sunni and Shi'ite
is our biggest worry, that Syria will become a
regional war," said one official. "Then you would
have Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq getting involved
... and that is something the region cannot
"Depending on his economic situation we estimate he
could last up to a year (but) now that the screws
have been tightened, it could be shortened", he
Like other Turkish officials, he emphasised the need
for an inclusive, non-sectarian opposition platform
-- which itself would help shorten the conflict.
"They should have somebody from every part of Syria
so that they are as representative as possible, to
encompass all the groups in Syria, including the
Another senior foreign ministry official added:
"There are many oppositions and many factions
whereas they have to be representative of all the
sects of Syrian society."
"They have to work on it. I don't see them there
Nor does he see as viable another widely touted
scenario: an internal coup or palace revolution
against the Assad clan.
"I don't see a coup possibility even by Alawites.
Assad the father devised a fool-proof system against
coups" he said, referring to Hafez al Assad,
Bashar's father, who held power for three decades
Some Turkish views are bleaker.
Soli Ozel, a prominent commentator and academic,
said: "All the skeletons of sectarian strife have
come out of the closet. Once the regime falls I
don't see how we avoid a major sectarian conflict if
not a bloodbath".
He believes Turkey, which has its own unresolved
ethnic divisions with its big Kurdish minority, will
not remain untouched by this.
"A country which has sectarian and ethnic faultlines
of its own should be more circumspect about where it
deploys its forces. I wish we had not crossed the
sectarian rubicon in Syria," he said.
Since it was established in 1984, the Kurdistan
Workers' Party PKK has been
fighting the Turkish state,www.ekurd.net
which still denies the
constitutional existence of Kurds, to establish a
Kurdish state in the south east of the country, sparking a conflict that has claimed some 45,000
But now its aim is the creation an autonomous
and more cultural rights for ethnic Kurds who
constitute the greatest minority in Turkey, numbering more than 20 million. A large Turkey's
Kurdish community openly sympathise with the Kurdish PKK rebels.
PKK's demands included releasing PKK detainees,
lifting the ban on education in Kurdish, paving the
way for an autonomous democrat Kurdish system within
Turkey, reducing pressure on the detained PKK leader
Abdullah Öcalan, stopping military action against
the Kurdish party and recomposing the Turkish
Turkey refuses to recognize its Kurdish population
as a distinct minority. It has allowed some cultural
rights such as limited broadcasts in the Kurdish
language and private Kurdish language courses with
the prodding of the European Union, but Kurdish
politicians say the measures fall short of their
The PKK is considered as 'terrorist' organization by
Ankara, U.S., the PKK continues to be on the
blacklist list in EU despite court ruling which
overturned a decision
to place the Kurdish rebel group PKK and its
political wing on the European Union's terror list.
Reuters: By Samia Nakhoul
author or news agency,
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