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January 11, 2012, Wednesday

It is time for Turkish leadership on Syria

These are days when Europeans, Americans and skeptics at home all tell us that Syria is a mess.

We hear day in and day out that Mr. Assad might survive the international isolation of Syria and could eventually succeed in suppressing the opposition. Of course, we hear about the complexity of the internal Syrian reconciliation, and there is plenty of commentary cautioning all of us that Syria might descend into civil war. News that ships of the Russian navy finally made it to the Syrian port of Tarsus only adds fuel to the fire of the non-interventionists. I am not here to discount the complexities involved in dealing with Syria. Indeed, I have written about it myself in this column. I am also not overlooking some of the various menacing regional objectives. They are equally objectionable. There is no doubt that there are a lot of risks involved. Despite contradicting perceptions, even the US is very reluctant to see external intervention in Syria and is seeking some sort of smooth transition of power. This is really a long shot under the current circumstances. Given the current positions of the permanent members in the UN Security Council, a resolution that would provide legitimacy to any sort of action in Syria is unlikely to come. So what is to be done if the daily killing of Syrians will continue unabated and there is no UN Security Council resolution? Will we stand idly by and express insincere condolences to those who are fighting this despicable regime?

The only outcome that might work under these conditions is a coalition of countries who are willing to take extra steps to stop President Bashar al-Assad's killing machine. But there is one problem. In the absence US political will to intervene in Syria, we need a country that shows true leadership. This country should be Turkey. With a more than 900-kilometer-long border with Syria, clear stakes in the outcome of the Syrian situation, a NATO member and a country that enjoys strong regional relations, Turkey is the only country that could and should show leadership in the Syrian case. The objective in Syria is clear: the removal of Mr. Assad and his cronies and the instituting a transition to a normal democracy that would allow all Syrian ethnic and sectarian groups to be represented fairly. Turkey should work toward uniting the Syrian opposition and make it clear to them that their only way to success is to unite and show political maturity. It is a fundamental weakness not to have a united opposition in Syria. Unless there is more coherence and a sense of purpose among the two main opposition groups, it will be difficult to push for more political action.

Regardless of the regional complications, the Iranian component, the danger of an Iranian-Saudi proxy war, the spillover potential to Iraq and many other negative possibilities, Turkey must take the moral and political leadership to end the bloodshed in Syria and force the departure of Mr. Assad from Syria. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was right when he said that Turkey has a direct interest in what happens in Syria. He must now devise a clear plan to widen the political coalition and focus on this important issue. No one will solve the Syrian imbroglio for us. We will have to do it. Given Mr. Assad's recent defiant speech he seems to be calling for it.

The Arab League's monitoring mission is merely a tool that is being exploited by the Syrian regime. The Arab League is lending invaluable time to the regime. It is a disgrace. Mr. Assad and his cronies have too much blood on their hands. Turkey and other regional countries, the EU and the US have a moral responsibility to protect the lives of Syrian citizens from the wrath of the Syrian security apparatus. The Syrian opposition should put an end to Mr. Assad's scare tactics and provide the Alawites, Christians, Druze and other ethnicities clear guarantees that they will not be victims of a revanchist administration.

In the absence of the Syrian state to protect its own citizens the international community has the responsibility to protect. We simply cannot stand by and witness the ongoing carnage next door. As a country with a strong sense of instituting a viable regional order Turkey should assume a leadership role. I know our foreign minister has told the Iranians in no uncertain terms that Turkey will not be playing the sectarian game that it is at play. There might be a time when we have to tell them that the ongoing carnage is no longer tolerable and that Turkey will take matters into its own hands. We need to build the necessary international coalition that can act together with regard to Syria. We need to show Mr. Assad that he will not be able to get away with what he is doing in Syria.

If we fail to act now on Syria we will lose our credibility, our hopes to institute a new regional order and the faith that most of the citizens of our neighbor have in us.

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