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September 17, 2012, Monday

Dealing with arms in post-Assad period

Military, intelligence and diplomatic officials of Turkey and the US have been holding frequent talks over Turkey's Syrian refugee problem, contemplating how to prevent arms from the inventory of Bashar al-Assad's forces, including chemical weapons, from falling into the hands of terrorists in the event that this brutal leader falls.

In addition, not only Turkey and the US but also many other countries fear that once the Assad regime falls, arms will be abundant but uncontrolled with the disbanding of the Syrian army, and there may be potential for a long-lasting civil war in the country.

Turkish and US officials held their second working group meeting on Sept. 14 in Ankara, with the first having been held in late August. The main purpose of these meetings is to establish common goals and strategies concerning “the day after” -- terminology used by Washington to refer to the day after the Assad regime falls.

On the issue of arms control, there is an analogy being drawn by Turkish military sources between Syria and Iraq. After US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, the majority of the Iraqi army's members were discharged, but did not return their weapons. Those weapons were used for the prolongation of the civil war in Iraq, and have also fallen into the hands of terrorist organizations.

There is a fear that the same thing may happen in Syria, with the addition of chemical weapons in the hands of the Syrian regime that may pose a risk if they cannot be controlled following the fall of Assad.

Unsurprisingly, no answer has yet been found to the problem of arms, as the future of Syria remains murky.

Another topic that the two NATO allies have been canvassing is that of a common strategy to maintain basic services in Syria, such as water, following the fall of the regime, and to prevent the fragmentation of the country.

Turkey and the US have proposed issuing identification cards for the Syrian refugees as a means to prevent terrorist elements, dispatched or yet to be dispatched by the Assad regime, from infiltrating Turkey as refugees. This concern stems largely from unregistered Syrian refugees, said to number 40,000, living outside camps in southern Turkey.

Turkish and US intelligence officials have been working to create a database of refugees and to issue identification cards for Syrians in Turkey, in order to compare these identifications with information held about members of various terrorist organizations.

Still, the societal and security implications of harboring refugees in Turkey is an issue that Ankara must largely tackle alone, while calls for international assistance to nations hosting Syrian refugees, including neighboring countries like Jordan and Lebanon, are not met.

In addition to around 80,000 refugees living in various camps in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, there are estimated to be over 40,000 unregistered refugees living elsewhere in the country. The refugee presence has already generated unrest between the Syrian guests and the Turkish citizens living in the areas in which Syrian refugees are settled.

Turkish calls for the establishment of what it describes as a “safe environment” on Syrian territory to meet the remaining displaced Syrians' needs inside the country have been rejected by both NATO and the international community, due to what they say are serious military risks posed by such a buffer zone, which would also require the creation of no-fly zones objected to by the Assad regime.

At the end of the day, the Arab Spring in the wider Middle East, and the Syrian conflict in particular, have been a serious test of Turkey's ability to manage such a crisis. To minimize the negative impact of the crisis on its doorstep, very close Turkish civilian-military cooperation, among other things, is required.

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