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July 01, 2012, Sunday

No good options with Syria and Iran

With tensions between Turkey and Syria reaching new levels last week, it is becoming impossible to avoid the thorny issue of deteriorating Turkish-Iranian relations, as collateral damage.

Although much attention is being paid to Russian support for the Syrian regime, the real force behind Damascus is Tehran. Turkey's relations with Iran have gone from bad to worse in the last year due to three factors. First came the shock when Ankara decided to host radars for the NATO missile defense system. Second, Iraq emerged as a growing problem in relations with Iran, mainly because of Turkey's support for the Sunni camp and secularist Shiite groups in the country. Third, Syria is now exacerbating the situation.

Turkey is frustrated by Iranian support for Damascus and is concerned about Iran's domineering influence in Iraq and Lebanon. Yet there is not much Ankara can do to hurt Tehran, because Iran holds two important cards against Turkey: the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Turkey's energy dependence. As far as Damascus is concerned, the Turkish government is still determined to avoid a full-blown war with Syria, yet relations between Ankara and Damascus have clearly reached a new level of potential confrontation after the events of the last couple of weeks. The two countries are now flexing their muscle with military mobilization at the border. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made it clear that from now on Turkey considers Syria a hostile state and that the Turkish military's rules of engagement have been changed in order to meet any future Syrian provocations with effective retaliation. NATO has thrown its support behind Turkey with a diplomatic statement expressing strong condemnation of Syria and solidarity with Ankara.

Despite such escalation of tensions and growing signs of potential confrontation, a Turkish-Syrian war is still not in the cards, as all diplomatic, non-military options have not yet been exhausted. For most democracies and rational actors in international relations, war is the last resort when all other avenues have failed. Clearly, the outlook for a diplomatic breakthrough in Syria is bleak. Damascus is engaged in regime survival, and the increasing death toll in the last couple of weeks is now reaching the kind of levels that may be observed in a civil war. Yet, as we have witnessed over this weekend in Geneva, the international community has not given up hope for a political transition in Syria.

Special UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan is once again at the heart of these efforts to find a diplomatic solution that would avoid Western or regional military intervention.  His strategy is to reach a consensus between Washington and Moscow to formulate a roadmap to peace in Syria. As a result, in a typical diplomatic compromise, where every word of the final statement matters, the world powers that attended the Geneva meeting have agreed on a plan for a unity transitional government in Syria. Although Moscow doesn't rule out Bashar al-Assad leading such a transitional government, the US argues that anyone with “blood on their hands” would not be chosen for the transitional administration.  US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton went so far as to say that the Geneva plan implicitly signals Assad's departure because it calls for “mutual consent” of anyone serving in the transitional government.

It seems like the text is one of these compromise documents where anyone can find something to their satisfaction. What is sure, however, is that the Geneva meeting is absolutely irrelevant in relation to dynamics on the ground. No diplomatic statement will force Assad out of power or stop Syria from disintegrating into civil war. To understand this, one has only to look at the language of the communiqué, which hopelessly reaffirms a demand that Annan's six-point peace plan be implemented as soon as possible. Everyone knows that the Annan plan in Syria has absolutely no chance of being implemented. It has been ignored by everyone. What such diplomatic efforts manage to achieve is a superficial sense of hope that military intervention may be avoided.

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