[email protected]

August 23, 2012, Thursday

Careful with that one…

With Aleppo now beyond the point of no return, turning into a continuous war zone, the case of Syria has already entered a delicate period. Every day, from now on, will throw in new, unexpected developments. Turkey’s initial distance from the conflict has vanished completely; it is now part of the machinery that will have to work until the very end.

That Assad must go is the settled objective. No matter how hopeful or assertive Moscow remains for a solution with his name kept in, Ankara can no longer pretend to live on friendly terms with the openly hostile head of a brutal, evil regime.

“We are at war with Syria and its regional allies,” declared my colleague, Suat Kınıklıoğlu, yesterday in his Today’s Zaman column. Not at all unjustifiably, he points out the linkages between the Antep carnage and other acts of terror, which -- according to President Abdullah Gül -- are without a doubt the product of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and only military language is sufficient to convince Assad that he has to go.

“Today, we are effectively at war with Syria by supporting the political and armed opposition fighting the Assad regime. The Syrian regime is fighting back by helping and supporting Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) hard-liners who unleash havoc as was seen in Gaziantep over the Ramadan holiday,” wrote Kınıklıoğlu, who offered two options. Turkey should either engage fully in direct military confrontation and set up a no-fly and/or a buffer zone, or it should continue the path of providing assistance to the armed opposition, to achieve a “domestic solution.”

Kınıklıoğlu argues for Option 1. He sees great risks for political instability at home and a messier neighborhood that may enlarge the role of the PKK, which Option 2 would lead to.

I disagree with his choice. Let me explain. I am not sure about “at war,” but certainly would argue that Turkey has never been at real peace with Syria, ever since the Assad clan took over. We need not say anything further about Syria’s role in the transfer of terror and as a base of ideological banditry all around. The escalations in Turkish territory are simply a reminder of how powerful that arsenal and network still is.

But direct warfare is a completely different and extremely dangerous, game. Ever since giving up hope in Assad (last August) managing a transformation of his country into a humane regime, Turkey’s position has been and is the correct one.

With Option 1, one may wish many things, but find that answers are not that easy. How would you set up and implement a no-fly zone? If you argue that you do not need an international resolution, who can you really trust, when you also set about establishing a buffer zone? How will it be sustainable, considering that a powerful Syrian army and units of Shabbiha and Mukhabarat are still very efficient?

And, when you start direct military engagement, how will the “friends of Assad” react? Do we know what Iran, Russia and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would do? Such a choice would certainly unleash a series of unexpected developments; it would provide Russia with the justification to approach from the sea to defend its interests.

Given what we learned from the Daily Telegraph story on Khomeini’s orders to punish those with terror who punish Damascus, the element of Iran is even more threatening for an all-out regional war. I have not even mentioned the stockpiles of chemical weapons that Syria promised to use in war.

For Option 1, Turkey must also absolutely act from the presumption that, once it does what it has offered, it may find itself completely alone (except for the US), even blamed and condemned, for messing it up. It may easily find itself with a broken vase that it must own. The record of its army in PKK warfare is also a reason to think more than 11 times.

Option 2 is the best one at the moment. But it will certainly come under reconsideration once the voting for president in the US in two months is over.

Until then, the conflict should remain “domestic,” backed by sharp covert action. Turkey must stay away -- even de-escalate certain elements of its indirect assistance.

It should do some more things: set up a trio of neighbors (with Jordan, Lebanon) on the humanitarian level in order to later transform it into a coalition that will help manage the Syrian transition.

It must resolutely push the Arab League to take over the financial burden of the refugee crisis, which is sure to be blown out of proportion.

It should work more honestly on its relations with Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who in private has been complaining of his strong mistrust of Ankara.

And, most importantly, after the type of terror that spread after Antep and Foça, Turkey must concentrate on intelligence gathering, strengthen its border surveillance and, sooner rather than later, professionalize its army. I agree with Kınıklıoğlu, that this one will be a very nasty escalation, and we all must accept that there will be casualties, unfortunately.

Previous articles of the columnist