My views on Syria are known. I have been calling for an international coalition to intervene in Syria with Turkish leadership. I maintain that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will not be toppled unless and until Turkey intervenes. I also think that the regime is much weaker than it appears from the outside. That said, I think the window of opportunity for a successful intervention has passed. What I really want to do is some stocktaking, and to hopefully present a somewhat clearer picture of Syria.
First of all, US President Barack Obama’s insistence on a non-military approach to Syria remains unchanged. He is unlikely to change that view before the new year, if at all. The motivations behind this are not limited to his election concerns; there are other factors at play as well. While there is increasing recognition in Israel that Assad is likely to leave power, there is still a tendency to see the Syrian imbroglio as a weapon in the larger regional scheme, and an opportunity in the inevitable regional rivalry of the eastern Mediterranean.
Second, the Iranian-Shiite-Nusayri (Alewite) campaign to paint the Syrian uprising in terms of a sectarian war has by and large succeeded in portraying Turkey’s Syria policy as a primarily Sunni undertaking. There is no doubt that the Qatari-Saudi role in supporting Salafist-Wahhabi elements inside Syria has fed into that. However, our policy is not driven by sectarian motives, and there are tensions between Turkey and the Saudi-Qatari camp on this -- we have invested considerably in a post-Assad Syria by hosting the Syrian National Council (SNC) and welcoming refugees fleeing the atrocities of the Assad regime.
Third, the downing of our reconnaissance aircraft by Syrian air defenses constitutes an embarrassment, whatever the circumstances in which it took place. It is an open challenge to our military deterrence capacity. The event clearly highlighted the dire need for rapid modernization and structural reform in the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). We need modern and mobile armed forces that can combat terrorism and which constitute a deterrent force in a dangerous neighborhood.
Fourth, the Russian role in the Syrian imbroglio has highlighted once again the losing battles Moscow consistently engages in. They are indeed very concerned about such events eventually reaching the borders of Mother Russia. That may or may not occur. But Russia’s stance on Syria has reminded many Eurasian romantics in Turkey that our relations with the Russian bear need to be re-examined.
Fifth, factions within the Syrian opposition and the inability to coalesce around legitimate leadership remain fundamental obstacles to the success of a post-Assad Syria. The meeting in Cairo was a disappointment to all, as the fractured opposition again failed to unite as an entity capable of acting as an appropriate interlocutor. The Kurdish contingent’s role in the disruption of the meeting needs to be looked at more closely. Yet the fundamental deficiency remains an inability to become a political entity that inspires confidence in the international community for a post-Assad administration. The last 16 months have been spent in hope, awaiting the “maturing of the opposition,” but little has been achieved in that regard.
The Geneva agreement for an orderly transition in Syria looks good on paper, but its implementation seems very unlikely to me. Divergent interpretations of the agreement have already dampened the initial enthusiasm around this initiative. I would be pleasantly surprised if I were wrong on this.
The good news is that the Syrian opposition is controlling more and more territory inside Syria, and the demoralization of the Syrian armed forces continues to result in defections. The Syrian imbroglio will continue to figure on our agenda for some time to come. There is reason for hope and despair at the same time.