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September 04, 2012, Tuesday

What Brahimi means for Turkey

“I know how difficult it is -- how nearly impossible. I can’t say impossible -- nearly impossible. And indeed we are not doing much.”

These were the words of Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat who replaced Kofi Annan as the UN envoy to Syria. Given the vast experience and high reputation attributed to him, as a man of great charm, patience and optimism, we can now add his helpless remarks as more proof of how extended the suffering in the Syrian civil war will be. Brahimi now seems to stand before a mission impossible and the regime in Damascus knows it.

“The conditions for success for Brahimi in his mission is for specific countries -- Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- to announce their commitment to the [UN’s] six-point plan and completely stop sending weapons [to rebels] and close borders to fighters and close training camps,” said Bashar al-Assad’s information minister, Omran Zoabi. In other words, Assad feels that he can test whether he has the upper hand to push for a unilateral retreat of the armed opposition -- an intent that will give him more time.

As the summer ends, the most concrete result of the conflict is -- apart from ceaseless killing and destruction -- the rising number of refugees. This has now become an urgent matter for Ankara, as the tensions in Hatay province signal the possibility of street conflicts involving refugees, Sunnis, local Nusayris, pro-Assad nationalist leftists and Kurds. It is a sharp political issue: A visit to a refugee camp in Hatay, requested by the opposition, was delayed and led to harsh accusations that there was a “cover-up” of military training at the camp site. Since the main opposition and pro-Kurdish BDP refused to go to the camp later in protest of being denied access, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) now feels it will become a hot issue for Parliament.

It is only a further strain for Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who is already under heavy pressure. He stretched his limits on the diplomatic front, and with the UN’s refusal of his five-point plan, which includes visits by the UN to the refugee camps and UN Security Council approval for cooperation between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the four countries neighboring Syria to handle the refugee crisis. The answer was a “no” -- reminiscent of the insensitivities felt during the Yugoslavian crisis.

Turkish disappointment and frustration is now apparent on several fronts, and it seems appropriate that Davutoğlu revisit priorities and look at what is left in terms of opportunities. In other words, he must do some major adjustments to what is otherwise good foreign policy (because it takes the moral high ground, no matter how much it is mocked by domestic and international cynics).

“The major mistake Davutoğlu and his team made with regard to the Syrian refugees was the refusal of foreign aid from other countries and international organizations, hoping that the refugee crisis would not swell and last longer than originally anticipated,” wrote Abdullah Bozkurt in his Sept. 3 column for Today’s Zaman. The miscalculation has led to the fact that the international public is kept from understanding the gravity of the humanitarian crisis that is developing. They should have been in the system from day one, because it was common knowledge that the Syrian regime would not give up that easily.

Closing the borders to the fleeing families now is no longer an option, and the first priority for Turkey now should be to engage at every price the aid agencies from all over the world. Turkish pride will no longer be a solution, because with every refugee that crosses the border, all sorts of risks are also added. If the UN or the EU remain indifferent, he must turn to the Arab League, and also to Qatar and (in particular) Saudi Arabia for sharing the financial burden.

Another point should also be clear: the option of setting up a no-fly and buffer zone jointly is not an option until elections in the US are over. It may be an option by the end of November if Obama wins, or could be an option next spring if Romney is victorious -- given the time it takes to switch presidents. Until then, Turkey diplomatically and militarily is left to its own devices, which is cause enough for extreme caution, and an endless stream of loud and whining rhetoric. Ankara must become quiet, and act in silence.

In this demonic conflict, every party is now playing for time. The armed opposition is in disarray and impatient, while Syria, Turkey, Russia, Iran and the US all need time to act promptly.

Can Brahimi, after all, deliver? It is a very vague, if not impossible, prospect. He knows he has plunged into a sea of vast cynicism, cruelty, and apathy. But he represents what Turkey now needs the most to tackle the refugee crisis: time. Therefore, Ankara must show that it backs all his efforts to the very end, and encourage his every move.

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