Given the complexities of the Syrian demography and the traditions of the ruthless, cunning Assad dynasty, all this was on the agenda for a long time. Ankara had been prepared for this. Turkey now seems ready to take in up to 10,000 refugees before asking for international humanitarian assistance, according to high-level officials in the Turkish capital.
The real question lies elsewhere. With every step taken firmly towards the hard-line, Bashar al-Assad has put to the test Turkey’s policies and Erdoğan’s patience. Now, Assad has come to the end of the line on that matter. He has lost Turkey. Starting this week, we will in all likelihood be witnessing a different language from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, similar to the one he has used with Israel’s leaders. President Abdullah Gül also seems weary of the shrewd tactics of Damascus as it continues killing its citizens and -- as the latest attack near the Turkish border shows -- conducting scorched earth policy in rural settlements. It should have become clear to Ankara that Assad’s ruling circle has decided to ignore the Turks completely.
Assad may have calculated some elements. In his mind, apparently, this will be an extended conflict that he, unlike Gaddafi, may eventually win. The external reason for this is the possibly direct support of Iran. Russia and China, with their currently defiant stand on UN decisions, gives the corrupt ruling elite of Syria high hopes. In the background, there is also the Israeli leadership, concerned of a regime change there. The reasoning goes, presumably, that “there will be no sanctions placed upon us so let us go on as we see appropriate.”
Calculations have a domestic aspect as well. As Zvi Bar’el wrote in the Israeli Haaretz daily yesterday: “The position of the Syrian army lends further support to Assad’s intransigence. Its lower- and mid-level echelons, as well as the senior command, is behind him. While opposition leaders have reported the defection of soldiers and some officers, even they admit that their numbers are in ‘the hundreds, and not thousands.’ Most of these defectors are soldiers or junior officers from towns and villages that are under army assault. According to Lebanese sources, senior commanders remove soldiers or officers who are ‘suspected’ of disloyalty and either imprison them or order them to remain in barracks.’
“So, nobody should be surprised if Assad does not pick up the phone to answer Erdoğan’s call, thereby burning all bridges. After, what would he say even if he were to? He knows Erdoğan has already called his brother Maher a “monster.”
So, the direction is clear. But it will also show Turkey the flipside of its “zero problem with neighbors” policy. The critique conveyed to Ankara that its Syrian policy is a “total failure” is shallow at best and cynical at worst; the past eight years of normalization in relations with Syria, if nothing else, have helped the opposition raise its voice and start an irreversible process. Turkey’s regional policy was the main driving engine to eventually push Assad to change -- or not. Yet, zero problems in this case was far from zero risks, and it is where the events lead to a new watershed for Turkish policies. Ankara is aware it may not go on rationalizing a bloodthirsty regime -- a regime that, above all, kills and suppresses Sunni masses, an issue of great sensitivity for the Justice and Development Party (AK Party).
But, the change of policy may have economic consequences. Turkey and Syria have signed more than 45 cooperation agreements. They have conducted joint military exercises. They have built a Strategic Council for Cooperation. Trade relations have boomed such that Syria’s biggest trading partner is Turkey. Visa restrictions lifted not too long ago provide a further incentive for increased commerce between the two countries.
Economic concerns aside, this is an issue for credibility for Turkey’s regional policy. Sooner, rather than later, it will have to choose a side, and it will have to be on the side of democracy, freedom and change.